When a theater company’s mission is to explore underappreciated Broadway musicals, it is probably inevitable that at some point it would select a show without any previously unrealized assets. For Slow Burn Theatre Company, that time is now and the show is Tarzan, the Musical.
Give director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater credit for investing such resources and energy into this production, perhaps the largest in the troupe’s eight years of existence. But then it must be quickly added that the effort is almost entirely wasted on this cartoonish adaptation of a 2006 Disney animated feature. The film version is no Mouse House classic, but it is far more satisfying than the bloated stage spectacle.
The Edgar Rice Burroughs iconic tale has been oversimplified by playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), who joined the Disney stable for a similar assignment on Elton John’s Aida. Yes, Baby Tarzan is separated from his British explorer parents in a shipwreck off the western coast of Africa, then adopted by apes. He grows into a hunky vine-swinger before being discovered by a human expedition that includes Brit botanist Jane Porter who goes, well, ape over him. So will he return with Jane to London or convince her to set down roots as a Dark Continent tree-hugger?
If you are think that sounds insufficient for an evening of theater, Fitzpatrick must agree with you, so he fills the two-and-a-quarter hours with aerial gymnastics and oddly humanoid dance routines by the ape ensemble, including – I’m not kidding – a jivy jitterbug.
Also padding the production are songs by rocker Phil Collins, who extends – but does not deepen – his film score. Chances are you will recall “You’ll Be in My Heart,” a melodic tear-jerker sung by Kala (Shonda L. Thurman), Tarzan’s adoptive ape mother. But the rest of the score makes little impression, except that Collins’ lyrics are generally cringe-worthy. Like most pop composers, he has not figured out the dramatic arc of a musical theater number.
Fitzwater has a genuine find in Natale Pirrotta as Tarzan. He sings well, swings about with abandon, has the requisite buff body and even keeps a straight face while saying his broken English dialogue. He deserves to be brought back in a role that better employs his evident talents. Carbonell Award winner Lindsey Corey, a Slow Burn veteran, is hardly an ideal Jane, but she too throws herself into the production and belts out nicely a few undistinguished tunes.
Other standouts in the cast include Darius J. Manuel as Tarzan’s ape sidekick Terk, who heads the second act opener, “Trashin’ the Camp,” Dante J.L. Murray as Kerchak, Tarzan’s stern adoptive ape father and Michael Cartwright as trigger-happy Clayton, eager to bring back a few apes, alive or dead.
This Tarzan musical always struck me as aimed at kids, and perhaps it was chosen by Slow Burn to encourage new, young theatergoers. There were certainly plenty of them at the weekend matinee I saw, including one sitting right behind me who talked loudly throughout the performance. Yes, that might have contributed to my grumpy reaction to the show.
But when I saw Tarzan, the Musical in New York nine years ago, I considered it the worst thing I have ever seen on Broadway. Now it is the worst thing I’ve ever seen at Slow Burn.
TARZAN, THE MUSICAL, Broward Center Amaturo Theater, 201 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Through Sunday, Nov. 5. $47-$60. 954-462-0222.