BY SANDY STAGGS
In a weekend of jungle déjàvu, Spartanburg’s Oakbrook Prep School revived its very first Twichell Auditorium musical Tarzan, first performed in 2013. And a dozen juniors and seniors on this production returned from the original run when they were just fourth and fifth graders.
I did not see the first Tarzan but the 2020 musical is stunning both visually and in musicality.
Growing up watching Ron Ely in the 1960s TV series, an occasional Johnny Weissmuller flick from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and even the unwatchable Bo Derek version in the 1980s, but this is the first time I have seen the musical version.
While the work lacks the breadth and score of The Lion King or The Little Mermaid, Tarzan is based on the 1999 Disney animated film with a smattering of songs by former Genesis frontman Phil Collins including the Oscar-winning “You’ll Be in My Heart.” The characters do not sing at all in the film version, but they do here – both the five original tunes and nine new compositions, and a book by David Henry Hwang.
And Collins’ style and strengths are instantly recognizable with an abundance of African drum beats and percussion, heavy piano riffs, and languid ballads.
Paralleling the family dynamics of The Lion King and the deplorable state of mankind
in King Kong, Tarzan follows our hero from a baby orphaned in the African jungle after a leopard (Cori Church) kills his shipwrecked parents (Richard Kitchen and Caroline McNeely).
Young Tarzan (Caleb Haltiwanger) is rescued by a gorilla Kala (the dynamic Khushi Mann) and king of the gorillas Kerchak (Christopher Henderson) who also lost their infant to the leopard. Though the latter never accepts Tarzan as one of their own and even exiles the youth from the tribe at one point.
The story takes a dramatic shift when adult Tarzan (now played with fervor by Marc Rivera), runs into Jane (the songbird of the show Isabel Baghdady) and her father Professor Porter (Luke Womick) and their expedition guide and villain, Clayton (Jackson Knight).
Obviously, a romance ensues and Jane decides to stay behind and live with Tarzan and the apes.
All of the leads are terrific, as are the dozens and dozens in supporting gorilla roles in the dance numbers (choreography by Jenny Howard), but the standout is “Who Better Than Me,” sung by Oakbrook’s secret weapon Gracie Wood as Tarzan’s slapstick pal Terk, who has the best lines in the show.
Dawn Rollins directs this epic that looks as beautiful as it sounds with tons of vines draping the set by Rollins and Christy Kobes, illuminated by the ligting scheme by Elijah George (loved the jungle green.)
It took the entire Oakbrook village to assemble the costumes (Beth Ann Hartford) and scenery, with hundreds involved in this production.
The live orchestra is conducted by Spencer Nance (Sarah Brown as co-instrument director), with sound design by Phillip Hartsuiker, and Bethany Lancaster as stage manager.
Final observation: Tarzan does contain graphic violence which I was not expecting for a family-friendly show – death by both strangulation and rifle.