It's a classic story with universal themes: parental loss, the bond forged between mother and son, a young man's search for paternal approval, a struggle to find one's identity, the blossoming of romance and man's relationship to nature.
While such a description may evoke tales of some heavy drama, the narrative in question is actually the musical “Tarzan.” Based on the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Disney's 1999 animated film, this musical, which has a score by Phil Collins, opens Lyric Theatre's 50th anniversary season.
Directed by Michael Baron with choreography by Ashley Wells, this production marks the Oklahoma premiere of the Disney musical. Heading the cast are Nicholas Rodriguez as Tarzan, Felicia Boswell as Kala, Steve Blanchard as Kerchak, Heather Botts as Jane and Jamard Richardson as Terk.
The character of Tarzan has long been ingrained in the public's consciousness, through film (played most notably by Johnny Weissmuller), television (Ron Ely) and Disney's animated film (voiced by Tony Goldwyn).
“Anytime you're dealing with a character like Tarzan that has some historical context, I think it's important to honor the past and the great guys who have played the character before,” Rodriguez said. “You use what's available to you and add your own take to the character.”
As in Burroughs' novel, Tarzan is raised by Kala, a gorilla who adopts the young boy after his parents are killed. And while Kala's mate Kerchak is quick to lose his temper, she maintains a sense of calm that lends her an almost magisterial presence.
“When I first read the script, I recognized that she had a really gentle strength,” Boswell said. “It kind of reminded me of my mom and I am my mother's child. I don't have to scream or stomp my feet to be understood.”
Given that the story of “Tarzan” unfolds in the jungle, the title character and his simian friends are naturally expected to take flight. Daniel Stover, director of AntiGravity Orlando, is supervising the flying sequences in Lyric's production of “Tarzan.”
“When the Broadway production was getting ready to open, AntiGravity did a three-week workshop in Las Vegas on all the different ways for monkeys and Tarzan to fly,” Stover said. “For this production, we're using a combination of manual and motorized flying.
“You'll see a lot of performers manually lifting each other through choreography while Tarzan and Jane's flying is all motorized. Some of the actors are harnessed and others will use a wrist wrap. The flying is intended to be kind of a ‘wow' effect so we space it out through the whole show.”
Adding such sequences to a stage production places yet another demand on performers who are already asked to act and sing. For Rodriguez, it also means appearing on stage wearing just a loincloth.
“Jeffrey (Meek, Lyric's costume designer) told me that loincloths weren't something he made on a daily basis,” Rodriguez said laughing. “It's basically just a few strips of leather and it's awfully short. It's funny that a couple of inches here or there can require so much attention.”
Since Tarzan was raised by a family of apes, he naturally learned to imitate their moves, from crouching to swinging on a vine. Portraying Tarzan also means Rodriguez has to spend a great deal of the show on all fours.
“I feel like that's the default place because that's where the character lives,” Rodriguez said. “Once you commit to that, it informs everything you do: how you walk and how you move. My hips don't really enjoy it and my lower back gets a little mad at me, so I really have to take care of my body.”
Boswell, who starred in “Memphis” on Broadway and was featured in the national touring productions of “Memphis,” “Dreamgirls” and “Aida,” likes the idea that audiences, regardless of age, will be able to identify with the universal themes portrayed in “Tarzan.”
“This story conveys the idea that everyone has an innate desire to love and be loved,” Boswell said. “Tarzan seeks that love from his father and his tribe, but then he expresses a different kind of love toward Jane. That constant thread is something people can always identify with.”