Don’t believe anyone who tells you there’s no entertainment value in Tarzan. While Disney’s stage adaptation of its 1999 animated film, which just opened at the Richard Rodgers, might at first seem a theatrical black hole, there are in fact numerous joys for the intrepid theatregoer. And, believe it or not, they’re found in David Henry Hwang’s libretto. Where else could ammunition for mockery be proffered so readily, practically on a silver platter? Yes, we can thank Hwang for the hours and hours of fun to be derived from Tarzan’s book. But for the fact that hardly any of it is intentional, and that this bloated behemoth is one of the most deadening shows to arrive on Broadway since the last Hwang-Disney collaboration of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida in 2000, we must blame Hwang and director Bob Crowley.
Of course, as the apes and humans are all singing Phil Collins songs, magic was probably always a long shot. Collins, a soft-rock sensation of the 1980s whose career has somehow not waned as his contemporaries’ have, has retained his songs for the film (including the syrupy, inexplicably Oscar-winning “You’ll Be In My Heart”) and penned new ones every bit as forgettable. His lyrics are better than those Bernie Taupin gave this season’s other pop-schlock score, Lestat, but are too droning, repetitive, and nonspecific to be even decent theatre music.
But if you must pity someone, make it Gambatese. An adept singer and game young actress constantly misused by Broadway (she last starred in All Shook Up), she gets the show’s only intentionally funny line (comparing ape-speak to the Romance languages), but is otherwise saddled with nonstop thankless tasks as the story’s token Sierra Club representative. How can you help but feel for someone whose introductory number requires her to marvel at Africa’s native flora and fauna (which resemble an LSD-fueled Little Shop of Horrors) while rattling off their scientific names in all their incomprehensible glory? The rest of the lyrics and dialogue could just as well be in Latin, too, for all the difference it would make. But then you’d likely miss timeless lines like Gregory’s “Should I be punished for my intelligence?”
Sounds like a wonderful Broadway season. And the Tony nominations come out on Tuesday.