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Review: Tarzan

Jules Becker

Large scale musicals are always a tricky proposition.

Take “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark” at Broadway’s Foxwoods Theatre. Even with major revision, the comic-book-based show needs more personalization and less expensive effect (but more about that in a later column).

At least “Tarzan,” now in a new version at the North Shore Music Theatre with a revised David Henry Hwang (“M Butterfly”) book, has enough emotional caring, romance and environmental concern to give adults some satisfying moments while children cheer the swinging of Tarzan (ape language for “white man”) and his simian sidekick Terk. All theatergoers should enjoy the sensory stimulation of the musical’s vivid light show. While the Phil Collins score generally lacks any real distinction, there are substantial compensations in the sound design’s evocation of the story’s rich repertoire of birds and animals.

Based on both the 1999 Disney film and the original Edgar Rice Burroughs story “Tarzan of the Apes,” the musical version has actors playing a leopard and the gorillas with whom Tarzan is raised and grows on the shores of West Africa. African American actor Gregory Haney brings the right combination of majesty and ferociousness to the role of Leopard. Designer Charles Schoonmaker’s  costumes for the actors playing the  Mangani – “great apes” allow them to move nimbly though their outfits are more stylized than fully accurate for animals.

The basic story is here – the shipwreck of Tarzan’s family, the death of his parents, his raising by she-ape Kala and an ongoing conflict with he-ape partner Kerchak as Tarzan grows up and becomes a hunter clearly on his way to becoming a leader in his own right.

Actress Robyn Payne brings striking feeling to Kala’s signature song “You’ll Be in My Heart,” arguably the one truly hummable and memorable Collins song. Payne’s warmth and inner strength as Tarzan’s simian mother do much to enhance the overlong first act. The same goes for Christopher Messina’s exuberant geniality as Terk and deep-voiced Todd Alan Johnson as Kerchak.

There are differences from the 1914 book. Here Tarzan meets Jane Porter – the first white woman he sees – in Africa. He meets her in Wisconsin in the original story. Tarzan ends up killing Kerchak in combat in the Burroughs work, while his relative – identified as Mr. Clayton – kills the ape leader here.

Even the romantic aspect is different – as Jane decides to remain in Africa with Tarzan. In the Burroughs story, Tarzan stays away from Jane – who has become engaged to his cousin William Cecil Clayton – so that she can be married to the man she loves.

Purists may quibble about these changes, but Hwang’s book does give the story a commitment to gorillas and the natural world. Also persuasive here, Jane’s father Professor Porter becomes a spokesman for nature conservation and the peaceful co-existence of animals and humans.

Adult audience members may regard the text and subtext as somewhat simplistic, but younger audience members are likely to embrace them along with Joshua Bergasse’s lively choreography, which does give ample attention to the changing moods of the gorillas as they come in contact with respectful humans like Jane and her father and exploitive ones like Mr. Clayton.

Under veteran director Bill Castellino’s generally effective guidance, there are other performances besides Payne’s, Johnson’s and Messina’s that command attention in this unassuming production. Brian Justin Crum wisely avoids imitating previous Tarzans and arrives at a portrayal that catches the character’s vulnerability and trust as well as his tenacity. Andrea Goss sings sweetly as Africa-enchanted Jane. Eric Collins seems fairly one-dimensional as Mr. Collins, but the fault may lie with the part.

“Tarzan” may have improved considerably thanks to Hwang’s revising (this critic did not get to see the Broadway original). Clearly an original score with strong African musical strains or Afrobeat rhythms (think of “Fela”) would do a lot more for the story and the musical than Collins’ un-extraordinary repertoire.

Still, the earnest and energetic North Shore Music Theatre staging will at least be in the heart of adventurous young theatergoers.

Tarzan, North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through July 24. 978-232-7200 or www.nsmt.org.