Review: Tarzan wears Igorot bahag in musical

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Jun 24 2013 01:16 PM | Updated as of Jun 25 2013 11:23 PM

The cast of "Tarzan" at curtain call. Photo from the Facebook page of Viva Atlantis Theatricals

MANILA – “Tarzan” is the latest in a growing list of crowd-pleasing productions mounted by local theater group Atlantis Productions (this one is under its joint venture with Viva Entertainment) based on popular Disney cartoon films.

Last December, Atlantis sent Tom Rodriguez and K-La Rivera on a magic carpet ride in “Aladdin,” and the year before, pop singer Rachel Anne Go made her successful theater debut as “The Little Mermaid.” Atlantis also brought “Beauty and the Beast” to the local stage with KC Concepcion as Belle.

As a stage production, “Tarzan” falls somewhere between the old-fashioned shtick of “Aladdin” and the magic of “The Little Mermaid.” Although largely enjoyable, thanks mainly to the energetic performance of the cast and some aerial acrobatics, Phil Collins’ pop score is largely disposable, save for the Oscar-winning “You’ll Be in My Heart,” and the well-intentioned book by David Henry Hwang rarely goes beyond the traditional Disney brand of storytelling.

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic novel about a child who was reared by a family of apes, the stage musical had a strong opening highlighted by a well-staged shipwreck and a leopard leaping through the jungle and killing Tarzan’s parents. This segued well into its famous song, sweetly sung by Kala (Ima Castro) to the baby boy she discovered while looking for her own baby who was also taken by the leopard.

However, the musical seemed to have stalled with the scenes showing Tarzan as a young boy. The two child actors came across as stilted and it wasn’t until Broadway “import” Dan Domenech made his swinging entrance did the musical regain some of its energy.

With his lean muscular body and pleasant tenor, Domenech, who appeared on Broadway as Drew in “Rock of Ages,” gave an effortless, convincing performance as Tarzan. In fact, this “ape-man” was more believable than the rest of the gorilla-costumed cast, with his consistent stage movements and poses. Domenech easily stood above the cast as the king of this stage jungle.

To be fair, the key actors of “Tarzan” also upped their game, especially in the musical numbers. Castro has never been this affecting as the gorilla mother Kala, while Calvin Millado as the top gorilla, Kerchek, was finally given a role of that utilizes his current stage heft and baritone voice to the hilt.

Rachelle Ann Go has obviously gained confidence in her second stage outing, particularly in the acting department. She is definitely ready to play Kim in “Miss Saigon” for next year’s London revival (reportedly opening in May 2014) if ever she bags this role of lifetime.

But the musical’s big surprise was Jeffrey Hidalgo as Tarzan’s best friend, the gorilla Terk. The former Smokey Mountain member imbued Terk with hip humor and his numbers, “Trashin' the Camp” and the reprise of “Who Better Than Me,” had a fun energy that was mostly missing in the other ensemble numbers.

Director Chari Arespacochaga gave “Tarzan” a professional polish as expected from Atlantis Productions despite the inherent limitations of the material.

The playwright Hwang actually introduced messages that are relevant to the times, such as its exploration of the concept of family, as well as themes of acceptance amid our differences. These lessons were clearly suggested but not mined thoroughly as “Tarzan” seemed more preoccupied with the visual aspects.

It is also quite interesting how the production managed to add some local touches to the design from the local weaves and fibers used by production designer Lex Marcos in creating the stylized jungle of trees and vines, and in costume designer Eric Pineda’s use of the Igorot bahag in place of the usual Tarzan loincloth, as well as the body painting in the gorilla outfits.

For the botany lesson number, “Waiting For This Moment,” with Jane marveling about the jungle flora, Pineda and Arespacochaga took inspiration from black light dance troupes with fluorescent colored costumes that transform into flowers.

“Tarzan” is definitely a visual delight for kids and even its two-hour running time was just right for this intended audience. But if you're over 12, just remember that this is based on the 1999 Disney movie with singing-and-dancing gorillas and you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it, too.

"Tarzan" runs until June 29 at the Meralco Theater.