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TARZAN swings into the Julia Morgan stage this summer, and it is Disney exciting fun with a first rate cast excellent production directed by founder of the Berkeley Playhouse, Elizabeth McKoy. The Berkeley venue has been transformed from the front lobby to the stage as the Congo for TARZAN The Musical and is now on stage through August 13th as the BPH closes out their record-breaking 2016-17 ninth season. The pulse-pounding musical adventure based on Disney's Oscar winning animated film and the classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Featuring a huge score from seven-time Grammy Award-winner Phil Collins (including the 2000 Oscar winner for Best Song, "You'll Be In My Heart"), and book by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Yellow Face).

Artist Director Kimberly Dooley, casting director Michael Wiles and McKoy brought together a thrilling cast of 30 Bay Area actors to create this Disney jungle of family and love. Director Mckoy says “this was one of the most joyful productions I have ever had the honor to work on!” Producer Dooley says "It's been a thrilling season at BPH this year (we) explored exceptional and diverse characters. They were characters who broke conventions and exceed expectations, Tarzan is the perfect musical to close this journey.”

Disney Theatrical Productions' gamble to turn this feature-length Disney animated feature into a huge, big-budget Broadway musical seemed relatively safe enough. It certainly has a familiar, audience-ready, fish-out-of-water story involving a shipwrecked infant baby raised amongst friendly apes, who then later grows up to become a handsome, loin-cloth jungle man with a talent for gravity-defying leaps from vine to vine.

This has Academy Award-winning music written by popular recording star, Phil Collins, much of which had already been a pop/rock favorite thanks to the Disney film that spawned it. Collins added nine new songs for the stage version. “Who Better Than Me” was written for the stage musical and includes the two young members of the cast Young Tarzan, played in rotation by adorable Mystic Inscho and Isaiah Johnson along with his gorilla best bud Terk played by the tumbling Jaina Manning and Maya Wong.

What’s important is that BPH creative team has outdone themselves with TARZAN on the vines, this production swings with jungle action. The adaptation of the animated film brings the legend right to your seat and the audience cheers about as loudly as the famous yodeling yell of the King of the Apes. Before the show begins you can’t fail to be impressed with the scenic concept by set designer Mark Mendelson.

The stage and its surroundings are awe-inspiring with appropriate green, jungle flora growing up and around the building at the Julia Morgan venue. Stages for apes to enter and swing are placed throughout the audience. Once the show begins and the jungle suddenly comes alive, Staci Arriaga’s high flying choreography is lavish. Animal characters either jump and leap across the stage or swing from side to side on the hanging vines with such athletic prowess it is as if Cirque Du Soliel had donned gorilla costumes and moved to a "Disney Africa".

The plot centers on our hero’s efforts from childhood through young adulthood - to define who and what he is, resulting in little real action or suspense. This simple quest has playwright David Henry Hwang's shallow script relying more on Jean-Paul Sartre rather than the original Edgar Rice Burroughs stories. This Broadway caliber production is certainly elevated by its production design and the cleverly conceptual ape costumes by Lisa Danz with ape makeup and wigs by the grand Lexie Lazear. I could feel the insects in those motley wigs. (just after watching War of Planet of the Apes, I was still itchy)

The gorgeous rich green and Congo lighting designs by Michael Oesch includes some magical lighted costumes with a warm glow from all directions inside the Julia Morgan. Dance captains Allison Meneley’s and Cathrine Delos Santos’ energetic modern-tribal choreography coupled with Sonya Smith’s breathtakingly complex flying sequences add to the overall wonder and enchantment that mixed well with Dave Maier’s fight sequences.

Musical Director Daniel Feyer leads a hardworking pit orchestra to produce a rich musical sound that is highlighted by the pounding drums for many of the numbers.

The two hour show’s most extraordinary asset is actually its foolproof troupe of actors, all blessed with striking talents well-suited for this particular show and manages to make the material seem better than it truly is. The company is perfectly diverse and includes some the Bay Area finest talent including Adam Donovan's first local show since being part of The American Conservatory MFA program.

Adam is the famed Tarzan who is a standout; acting, singing, dancing, fighting and performing acrobatic feats of strength for over two hours. He proves his capable voice singing the song “Different” that he performs with his first love Jane Porter played by the exceptional Marissa Rudd. Donovan is in shape to play the ape man only wearing a loincloth and in a Disney first, there are repeated subtle references to Tarzan going commando, but of course BPH kept the show family friendly and the kids loved Donovan’s swings, flips, and adventures into the sold out weekend audiences.

Donovan is essentially playing two different characters; the animalistic but human-like Tarzan among the apes, and the feral man with a gift for mimicry that Jane discovers in the jungle. Seeing him switch back and forth between these perspectives is a highlight of Adam's performance. Rudd as Jane, the incessantly curious, sometimes fumbling girl with an exploratory knowledge is amusing, she sings “Waiting For This Moment” with the company and show cases her beautiful voice.

The animal ape cast is the main centerpiece of the first act, including the character of Kala, Tarzan's ape surrogate mother. Played by the sensitive Marisol Urbano she is the unsung hero of this entire musical, sometimes becoming the most relatable, most important character in the show. Singing the memorable “You’ll Be In My Heart” with the talented family of gorillas on stage, all squatting for the entire two hour show.

Not an easy task as mentioned by one of the cast of apes the endearing Aubri Kahalekulu, “The whole process was terrifying because every single person in the cast is so talented and precious and perfect and the fear of not being up to par was immense”. The intense company of gorillas and apes include the full throttle Keala Freitas, Aurelia Jordan, Allison Meneley, Tiana Paulding, Danny Quezada, Aris Allen Roberson and the eye catching Joren Chris Reyes.

As the stubborn Father ape, Kerchak, local favorite R.Martin Newton brings a regal, authoritative presence, rich singing voice in his portrayal of the gorilla tribe's leader and chief. His voice shines in “Sure As Sun Turns to Moon” along with his mate Urbano as Kala. Newton exhibits subtle hints of vulnerability in his scenes with both Urbano and Donovan. Beneath all the hair and makeup, Newton’s and Urbano’s characters are the most fully developed of the show. Their relationship draws more empathy than Tarzan and Jane.

Director McKoy draws pleasing work from her cast, exceeding the material itself. The family of gorillas create a warm society and the relationships depicted as in any domestic story. The show stopping number of the second act “Trashin’ The Camp” with the adult Terk played by the skillful Marcel Saunders who heads a gorilla dance party featuring a Cab Calloway celebration.

Saunders brings a sense of joy to the jungle also in his duet “Who Better Than Me” with the swinging Donovan. Trek also provided some of the best laughs in the script he declares that he would rather play with Tarzan than his fellow gorillas because all they do is “…Jump around and roll in their own poop.”

Photos by by Ben Krantz Studio. Young Tarzan played by both Isaiah Johnson and Mystic Inscho. Maya Wong as young Trek

The second act also brings the human cast into the story. As Jane's father, Professor Porter, the bumbling Paul Plain pleasantly plays up the cartoonish British cheerio an explorer heading the expedition to study the animals. The villain, the accomplished Adam Niemann, spreads his dramatic wings taking the role of the villainous game hunter, Clayton, who only wants to score a prize gorilla.

The smitten Joren Reyes doubles as his suitably snarling accomplice Snipes and has a fun juggle of wits and guns choreographed by fight expert Dave Maier. Tarzan’s blood parents played by Vida Mae Fernandez and Sam Jones have fine voices and reprise “Two Worlds”. The remarkable Cathrine Delos Santos is terrific as the ballet fluid smooth Leopard who shows off her poignant dance as she does her task of killing Tarzan's parents.

When Collins's score is at its best with the songs like "Who Better than Me", "Son of Man" and "Odd Man Out”. The percussive music is not the highlight of this musical but not as bad as most critics have panned and criticized. The creative team brings this Berkeley summer jungle a cool charm and Marisa Ramos props are sharp including guns, spears and cages. Sound engineer, Josh Price, cleverly plants his sound gear in the ape costumes with Sandy Young-Cellilo assistants who help create the furry raggy apes along with dressers Naomi Schiller and Caroline Walters. Scenic Painter Kristen Augustyn had a lot of climbing to accomplish covering all the side perched stages in the venue with a rich Congo green.

Cathrine Delos Santos is the killer Leopard, her dance choreographed by Staci Arriaga, and fight consultant Dave Maier

The frisky youth cast of apes and chimps include Christian Acuna, Emma Curtin, Marion Geraci, Lily Martins, Sydney Quan, Ellie Wong, Annie Zaumeyer and the high flying Cameron Zener.

Do we get to hear the icon classic ululating yell that the Ape man is famous for? I can’t reveal that spoiler. But I can say Carol Burnett is probably still the best at doing that sound effect. This vibrant production ultimately explores what it means to be a family. The Berkeley Playhouse has produced a remarkably fun TARZAN that dazzles and entertains. The incredible combined efforts of the show's creative team and its richly drum core striking orchestra, is top-notch. Yes bring some banana’s and find your way to this summer treat. The BPH will open their 2017 - 18 Tenth season with SISTER ACT in September.

Berkeley Playhouse Presents


The Stage Musical

Based on the Disney Film

Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins

Book by David Henry Hwang

Adapted from “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Directed by Elizabeth McKoy, Music Director Daniel Feyer

Choreographed by Staci Arriaga

Must close Aug 13, 2017

Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley

Running time: 2 hours, one intermission

Tickets: $25-$40; 510-845-8542 x351

Check web site for Pay What You Can performances

Photos by Ben Krantz Studio.

ANIMAL Berkeley Playhouse will be partnering with Oakland based Hopalong and Second Chance Animal Rescue

Throughout the production of TARZAN the BPH supports Animals second chance. Hopalong & Second Chance Animal Rescue are committed to eliminating the euthanasia of adoptable animals in Northern California through adoption and prevention services. Working with partners at shelters in the Bay Area and Central California counties, they identify and remove animals at risk of immediate euthanasia and facilitate their adoption into loving homes.

Berkeley Playhouse managing director Gretchen Feyer says "In Tarzan, we experience this incredible respect and love for animals through the characters of Jane and her father. We wanted to bring that forth, and I'm excited to introduce the wonderful work of Hopalong to our audiences. In the coming weeks, we'll be announcing an adoption day following a Sunday matinee performance to be held on our College Avenue porch-front that will be open to all."




"I started this rehearsal process going "Staci if I'm not fit by the end of this show I'm doing your choreo wrong" and I thought 'fit' was synonymous with 'thin'. I thought to be fit you had to look like a fitness model in a fabletics ad. The whole process was terrifying because every single person in the cast is so talented and precious and perfect and the fear of not being up to par was immense. Every single gorilla and human in this show is so welcoming, uplifting, and so so caring it pushed me to be better. Tonight, I did a pull up, in fact I did a few which beginning Tarzan I couldn't even do a push-up let alone a pull up. Tonight, I got through the whole show without injury, without exhaustion and with energy left to spare and without fear. Tonight, I realized being 'fit' doesn't equate being a model, it's being willing to push yourself, willing to do the best you can even if it's tough, not giving into your fear, and then excelling your own expectations. Thank you Tarzan family for your kindness and your joy, thank you for your care and gentle warmth. I love every single one of you with every fiber of my being and I'm so proud to be #GDC. Y'all rock.."

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