With “ Tarzan,” the opening production in Lyric Theatre’s 50th anniversary season, we get a theme park musical with wild rides and impressive scenery. It’s a Disney show after all, a company known for its ability to employ theatrical magic in transforming less than compelling narratives.
Everyone knows the story: after Tarzan’s parents are killed, he’s raised by the she-ape Kala to the consternation of her mate Kerchak. And while Tarzan adapts to life among the apes, he knows he’s different, something that becomes abundantly clear once he meets Jane Porter.
With musical numbers that feature apes executing complex choreography and exchanges between characters who communicate through snorts, bellowing and chest pounding, “ Tarzan” the musical can’t withstand too much scrutiny.
But theater asks audiences to suspend reality and if the acting and visuals are sufficiently compelling, they’re happy to go along for the ride. Thanks to Michael Baron’s swift pacing and keen vision for creating a vivid portrait of life in the jungle, Lyric’s audience is willingly seduced.
His efforts are spectacularly complemented by Adam Koch’s multi-level scenic design, Jeffrey Meek’s imaginative costumes, Helena Kuukka’s color-saturated lighting design, Ashley Wells’ stage choreography and Daniel Stover’s impressive aerial choreography.
The musical’s opening number, titled “Two Worlds (One Family),” sets up the premise that even the unlikeliest familial groups share the basic tenets of acceptance, protection, one’s search for identity and love. In the case of “ Tarzan,” we see those shared values even with different species.
Bridging those worlds can be unintentionally humorous, however, as witnessed when Tarzan struggles mightily to communicate with Jane but then launches into a full-throated musical number moments later.
And yet, it’s the show’s underlying sense of wry humor that masks many of those incongruities and often leads to outbursts of laughter when one senses some character’s knowing wink or unexpected change in facial expressions.
While it’s never easy for actors to find depth in characters where little exists, Lyric’s cast is impressive across the board. For much of the first act, the story hinges on young Tarzan, with Jace Appling demonstrating a fine grasp of his character’s blend of shyness and wise guy humor.