In this telling of "Tarzan," the titular character's parents are shipwrecked (their reasons for travel go unexplained) and wind up on the shores of West Africa, where they attempt to make the best of their new situation and care for their infant before being eaten by a leopard, leaving baby Tarzan an orphan. That same sneaky leopard (played by teen actor Grace Hutton with feline grace) snatches the much beloved baby gorilla of Kala (Phaedra Tillery), mate of silverback leader Kerchak (Michael D. Reed), leaving them heartbroken. Kala hears the baby human's cries and adopts him as her own, against the wishes of Kerchak, who's had bad experiences with humans in the past. Soon the baby is a growing boy (Oliver Copaken Yellin) who loves his gorilla family, despite feeling a bit different from them and never quite earning Kerchak's approval. He becomes best friends with the sassy, smart-mouthed young Terk (Jenika Fernando) and lives happily until Kerchak throws him out when he catches him fashioning a tool that could double as a weapon.
Killing that nemesis leopard, though, puts him back into the ape family's good graces and boy grows into man (Jimmy Mason), with ever-loyal Kala and Terk (played in adulthood by the delightful Daniel Lloyd Pias) by his side. Meanwhile, English academic Professor Porter (George Mauro) and his brainy daughter Jane (Jessica LaFever) sail in to the apes' territory with a plan to study the local flora and fauna. They're guided by the villainous Mr. Clayton (Gary Giurbino) who, unlike the peaceful Porters, wants to capture gorillas by any means necessary to turn a profit. When Tarzan meets Jane, it's love, or at least attraction, at first sight, and the apeman realizes that his hitherto unexplored longing for his "own kind" may run deep. He's willing to leave Africa for a "civilized" life with Jane, but when Clayton's nefarious intentions threaten his beloved gorilla family, Tarzan finds his loyalty tested.
"Tarzan" is not without its uncomfortable colonial baggage, despite an attempt to make its message more palatable to modern audiences and distance itself from the racist original text. Human society is represented solely by the white explorers, while the only "natives" represented are non-human apes, and they end up with white, male outsider Tarzan as a savior. However, it's both a compelling adventure story and also a touching examination of acceptance and what it means to be a family. The book, by eminent playwright David Henry Hwang, adds a touch of more adult humor to the script (Homo erectus jokes, anyone?).
Kudos in this production belong first to director Patrick Klein and especially choreographer Claire Alexander. Under their direction, the ensemble of apes moves fluidly like a pack of knuckle-dragging, parasite-picking-and-chomping quadrupeds (and I mean that as a compliment). The actors climb, swing, flip and tumble all over the stage. The set design, by Klein and Nikolaj Sorensen, is gorgeous and green, and the shipwreck projection in the beginning a dramatic and effective touch. Costumes and props by Patricia Tyler and Scott Ludwig, respectively, are visually compelling as well, with the gorilla costumes more like fringed tribal clothing than animal furs.
Mason is imminently well-suited to the title role, able to sing well while swinging from ropes and scampering like an acrobat, and charming in his courtship of Jane, especially when he mimics her speech in an attempt to communicate. His Tarzan, while smart and strong, is not an untouchable superhero: he's refreshingly human.
LaFever's version of Jane is a heroine worth rooting for — happily and unabashedly nerdy and enthusiastic about science (and three cheers for a leading lady wearing eyeglasses). Though she speaks in a comically exaggerated prim-and-proper manner, she's not afraid to have an opinion and no doubt chafes against the confines of her strict Victorian society back home. She and Mason have worked together with Palo Alto Players before and have good chemistry. I enjoyed Tillery and Reed as the gorilla elders. Reed's huge (physical and otherwise) presence commands the stage whenever he appears and Tillery embodies limitless maternal love. They have a sweet scene of reconciliation that shows their deep bond, even as they argue.
Collins, who was a theater actor before he ever became a rock drummer/pop star, is not the best composer of either Disney film soundtracks or musicals. His lyrics tend toward the cliche and bland ("Trust your heart. Let fate decide") and the songs, for the most part, are just OK light-pop trifles. However, Tarzan's big song, "Strangers Like Me," and Turk's upbeat, Motown-like "Who Better Than Me?" are highlights, and Kala's tender lullaby for her son, "You'll Be in My Heart" is stirring, especially when it becomes a recurring motif.
Though young children may be frightened by some scenes of violence, judging by the gaggle of kids attending the family-day matinee I attended (which included some pre-show crafts, snacks and posing for pictures with the costumed actors afterward), the production will be in the hearts of many locals, young and old alike.
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through Sept. 23. Cost: $34-$49.
Info: Go to paplayers.org.
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