Saturday, June 29, 2013

PDI Review: 'Disney's Tarzan' by Viva Atlantis Theatricals

My review of "Disney's Tarzan" by Viva Atlantis Theatricals is in today's Inquirer - here! Show closes tonight.

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'Disney's Tarzan' swings - and barely hangs on

Towards the climax of Act II of "Disney's Tarzan," the short-lived Broadway musical running until Saturday at the Meralco Theater as Viva Atlantis Theatricals' second offering of the year, its titular ape-man, torn between remaining with his adoptive gorilla family and following his newfound human friends back to England, frustratingly exclaims, "I'm so confused!"

Well, that's just about our overall sentiment after sitting through this clunky, two-hour production that has exactly two standouts.

The first is American actor Dan Domenech, whose credits include "Rock of Ages" on Broadway and a spot on the fourth season of "Glee." Now, as Tarzan clad only in a traditional "bahag," Domenech shines with a portrayal of commendable consistency. His attention to character - the slightly hunched posture, fists as locomotive devices in the manner of gorillas - makes for a compelling interpretation of this Disney-fied man of the jungle. Simply put, when he's an ape around humans, you believe him, and when he's a human around apes, you also believe him.

The second is the set by Lex Marcos, the same brain behind the enchanting flying carpet scene in last year's "Disney's Aladdin" and the underwater kingdom in "Disney's The Little Mermaid" the year before (both staged by Atlantis Productions, by the way).

This time, Marcos has created a jungle out of the aged theater. The proscenium is "overgrown" with interlacing leaves and branches, the stage constantly awash in shades and shapes of green, and a scrim is put to perfect use in depicting horizon and distance.

Where's the magic?

Unfortunately, lush scenery and a good Tarzan do not a compelling show make.

For starters, how about a book that has no intent whatsoever of becoming its own person, so to speak? The musical, based on the 1999 Disney film that in turn took after Edward Rice Burrough's "Tarzan of the Apes," tells the story just as it appeared in cinemas 14 years ago, give or take a few elements.

A family of three washes up on a beach after a shipwreck, the parents get killed by a leopard, and female gorilla Kala takes the human infant as her own, to the dismay of her mate Kerchak. The baby grows up to be Tarzan, and one day, he meets Jane, who's come to the continent with her gang of Victorian Brits with varying agenda.

The essential love story, singing troop of apes, tree-swinging and high-flying stunts - they all made it to this "Tarzan" of the Great White Way. Yet, the sad fact is, David Henry Hwang's screen-to-stage translation comes off as largely uninspired - seemingly a bunch of animated storyboards sheepishly set to the "Play" button that, not surprisingly, falls flat on its behind with more than just a faint thud.

In other words, where's the magic?

Shaky accent
The score by Phil Collins is not much of a charmer, either. The film's songs are still there; "Son of Man," "Two Worlds," and the Oscar winner "You'll Be in My Heart" have to be the most familiar. The extra baggage, however, proves rather forgettable (and here, we try and fail to name at least one of the new songs).

Onscreen, "Tarzan" was an exciting dive into the life of the African jungle; for the stage, Hwang and Collins have created a mere copy of the film, sans any spark of the original work. A tragedy, then, that director Chari Arespacochaga can only play shepherd to the turn of events, which is all at once plodding and flitting. A scene unfolds and a song gets performed, but nothing really sticks to memory.

There's also the matter of Jane Porter, the female lead. Onstage, she has been reduced to this wide-eyed amateur scientist who rattles off Latin animal and plant names for a first song. (That number deserves the honor of being the show's strangest: The dancing insects and plants look more out-of-place than exotic.)

Rachelle Ann Go, who made quite a splashy theater debut as Ariel in "Disney's The Little Mermaid," can belt out the score alright, but her shaky British accent and one drop too many of that young-girl, over-the-place naivete weigh her down.

Outstanding voices

How about Ima Castro as Kala and Calvin Millado as Kerchak? Both are outstanding voices (Castro, in particular, has the flavorful task of belting out "Two Worlds" and "You'll Be in My Heart"), and both are actors of certain acclaim (Castro as Kim in "Miss Saigon," Millado as Roger in "Rent").

Yet, when placed beside Domenech's Tarzan, their "un-gorilla-ness" is glaring. How they move and carry themselves, which is very much Homo sapiens, render them the least gorilla-like among the entire troop.

Jeffrey Hidalgo as Tarzan's sidekick Terk is a more consistent package, but he's hardly given major exposure, while Eugene Villaluz plays Jane's father Archimedes with understated elegance.

Speaking of apes, how about Eric Pineda's gorilla costumes? They look like a cross between a Pacific tribesman and an encyclopedia illustration of the Himalayan yeti. But they're nothing compared to the leopard (the musical's most thankless role) whose headpiece could have easily come from a party clown's closet.

After two hours of acrobatic gorillas (courtesy of choreographer Cecile Martinez), shouting child actors, sparse laughs, and a considerable amount of belting, the rhetorical question becomes altogether unavoidable: What. Was. That?

This is a "Tarzan" that swings - and barely hangs on. Here, emotions are often expressed in terms of decibels, and confusion - be it in individual characterizations or whole scenes - seems to ring louder than clarity.

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