PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Tarzan, Lord of the Bungee-Jumping Apes

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11 May 2006

Phil Collins; Josh Strickland; Jenn Gambatese; Shuler Hensley; Bob Crowley; Chester Gregory II; Merle Dandridge; David Henry Hwang; Stephen Schwartz; James Marsden; Alan Menken.
Phil Collins; Josh Strickland; Jenn Gambatese; Shuler Hensley; Bob Crowley; Chester Gregory II; Merle Dandridge; David Henry Hwang; Stephen Schwartz; James Marsden; Alan Menken.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

So this is the way the season ends—to play fast and loose with old T. S. Eliot—not with a bang but with an “AAAAAHHHHH - ah - a - AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH - ah - a - AAAAHHHH!”

That was just the audience speaking, too—a run-ragged band of Tony nominators and first-nighters reaching the finishline of the '05-'06 Broadway season May 10 with Tarzan.

The last gesture of the season was romantic and sweeping. Josh Strickland scooped up Jenn Gambatese in his arms—he being Tarzan, she being Jane—and sailed off into the Richard Rodgers rafters and a happily-ever-after blackout. After a respectable pause, lighting designer Natasha Katz hit the light switch hard, bathing the open stage in brilliant light that enhanced the almost glo-green vines surrounding it on three sides.

The large cast soon rushed forth to take their bows—those that could, anyway—while nine simian-suited actors boing-boinged about happily above them in the available air-space on bungee ropes. Then—most bizarrely of all—suits infiltrated the loincloths and leopard skins: the creative team starting with Phil Collins, who supplied the songs (15 in all, 10 more than he wrote for the 1999 Disney animated feature), and Bob Crowley, who directed and designed the show, throwing cost-cutting caution to the four winds.

It was Disney's dime, but no one would say how hefty a coin that was—from Robert A. Iger, President and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, on down. “It’s not about money—it’s about the talent,” he said, spinning away. “Bob did a great job, Phil did a great job, they all did. We had worked with Bob before [doing the Elton John Aida], and he deserved the shot. Not only did he rise to the occasion, he exceeded our expectations.”

Ben Brantley, in The Paper of Record, placed the figure at “a reported $12-15 million,” but he didn’t report who reported it. Variety actually raises that number to $15-20 million.

Whatever, the money shows. One might deduce Disney would not walk through such an assignment, but placing a soaringly creative spirit like Crowley in charge is tantamount to license to KILL (in the vaudeville sense). The spectacle is constant and surprising enough to give the eyeballs spasms. “I have a vision of the world,” he said, “and I’d like to think people might come along with me for the ride. I want them to use their imagination. I’ve worked on this for five years--not continuously, but it has been in my head for five years.”

And it has spewed forth in a torrent of visual virtuosity for which he’s famous (Capeman, Carousel). He starts small—with a shipwreck, yet!—and builds. Leaping leopards are within his grasp. He disorients you enough so you see scenes from an overhanging view.

“You don’t go wrong when you let Bob Crowley do what he wants to do,” noted Thomas Schumacher, who, as director of Disney Theatrical Productions, hired the Brit not only to design the sets and costumes but also to direct the show. “The whole idea to have Bob design and direct is really about trying to unify that vision in the movement of the piece.”

He, too, deflected the obvious question—nicely with “We never talk about dollars, but I’m glad you asked.” Then: "The reality is that it’s frankly no different than any other production we would have done on the scale of, say, Aida. The big difference is that we didn’t go out of town, and, by not going out of town, it allowed us to spend that out-of-town transfer money on a little bit more rehearsal time. That’s the only difference. “Somebody once, somewhere, wrote that Tarzan is the most expensive show in Broadway history, which I find amusing since they know that I produced The Lion King and my good friend, Cameron Mackintosh produced The Phantom of the Opera—and this show pales in comparison financially to both those. It’s kinda in the average range.”

The first thing on Crowley’s To-Do list on finishing this Herculean chore won’t be to go to Disneyland. “No way!” he exclaimed (so fast and emphatically that he backpedaled a bit as if to say “Not that that wasn’t a lovely option”). His next order of business will be to be tending to Mary Poppins Nov 16 when she arrives from London and takes up residence at the New Amsterdam, exiling The Lion King to the Minskoff on June 4. Actually, Crowley has Disneyland in his own backyard. A mini-Magic Kingdom is forming mid-Broadway. Tarzan’s the boy across 46th Street from Beauty and the Beast.

Ashley Brown, the current fairer half of Beauty and the Beast, stops her Belle-wringing May 28 and starts her flying lessons to play the airborne British nanny. After work, she crashed the Tarzan party, it being the neighborhood (the Marriott’s jungled-up Broadway Ballroom), next door to the Richard Rodgers and across the street from her Lunt-Fontanne.

She arrived in an euphoric state that can only be called supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, on the arm of her new Lumiere, “All My Children”'s Jacob Young. “I just found out Monday I’d be playing Mary Poppins,” she trilled. “Tom Schumacher told me. I’ve been with Disney a few years now, doing the On the Record tour, then Beauty and auditioning for Mary Poppins. I auditioned nine times. It’s something I’ve always wanted, but I’m just 24 years old, and it’s something I never would have imagined happening. But it did happen! It’s surreal. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wrap my head around this.”

Nevertheless, she comes well-versed for her role with a better British accent than most Florida natives. “When I was little, I used to sing in an English accent. My mother was, like ‘Okay, who is this child?’ because I’m a Southern girl. It came from the videos I watched. I watched Sound of Music—it was a double VHS—probably three times a week back then. Mary Poppins—I had all the songs memorized. I was a real Disney baby.”

The Disney star at the top of the opening-night guest list is the one who introduced Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Oscar-winning title tune in Disney’s 1991 "Beauty and the Beast"—Angela Lansbury, regal, upright, the well-turned-out lady we know and love.

Mrs. Potts was spilling over about her change in life—from West Coast to here. “New York is my town, and I finally got into town,” she said. “I just bought a condominium here and I just want to get back into that wonderful atmosphere of music and opera and all the good stuff that’s available in New York that I’ve missed terribly.” She started her playgoing the day before, but this was her first opening, and she wasn’t sure she’d be glittering up other such occasions. “Not my favorite thing,” she said wearily like one who’d had a few rocky openings. “But I love plays, and I plan to see quite a lot of them.”

And is there a possibility that maybe she might mosey on stage herself? “Well, you never know, y’know,” she replied, leaving the door ever-so-slightly ajar. “Trevor Nunn wrote to me and asked me if I would do A Little Night Music, and then it never happened. They never did pursue it, but maybe some year they will. I would seriously consider it.”

A third Beauty and the Beast veteran made pretty pictures in the paparazzi receiving line—Christy Carlson Romano, who was the 10th anniversary Belle, the voice of “Kim Possible” and the star of several Disney TV movie (recently: "The Cutting Edge 2"). Damon Burroughs, grandson of "Tarzan" creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, was prominent among the first-nighters and flashing an ancient copy of "Tarzan: Lord of the Jungle."

Also attending: Lucie Arnaz (throwing in with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on May 29) with Laurence Luckinbill, directors Jack O’Brien and Joe Mantello, Dana Ivey, "X-Men"’s James Marsden and 'Junebug"’s Amy Adams (who are starring in a new Disney flick, "Enchanted"), Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mario Cantone with Jerry Dixon, Cynthia McFadden, Shoshanna Bean (late of Wicked), Saundra Santiago, Lynne Whitfield, choreographer Wayne Cilento, Roger Rees with Rick Ellis.

Arriving late from their respective shows: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' Rachel York with producer-boyfriend Ayal Miodovnik and all four of the Jersey Boys.


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