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

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Tarzan, Lord of the Bungee-Jumping Apes
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!”
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

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.

Among the Tarzan creative team getting a lot of snap, flash and pop were choreographer Meryl Tankard (to apes what Gillian Lynne was to Cats), lighting designer Katz, Pichon Baldinu (recruited from De La Guarda to give Tarzan proper swing and sway) and the oft-forgotten book writer (a Tony-winning one for M. Butterfly), David Henry Hwang.

“I’m excited, and I’m relieved,” Hwang sighed at journey’s end—in the press line just outside the Marriott’s party-in-loud-progress. “I really started developing the project four years ago, and then, of course, there are people like Phil Collins and Tom Schumacher, who worked on the animated movie. I certainly used the movie as a jumping-off point, and there are lines from the movie, but Bob Crowley really encouraged me to depart from the movie when I wanted to in order to explore the themes more deeply."

His next move will be non-musical. “I have a play, which is great because I haven’t done a new play in a while. We’ll start it at the Mark Taper Forum out in L.A. next spring and then bring it to The Public the following fall. It’s called Yellow Face, and it has something to do with Face Value [a Hwang work that closed right before its Broadway opening], but I can’t exactly say what right now.”

You’d not suspect vertigo of Chester Gregory II from the way he now glides through the air with the greatest of ease—upside down, in fact, at the top of the second act. “I like to try to do different things, unique things, so I asked them in the rehearsal process if I could do it,” said the actor who plays Tarzan’s best ape-friend, Terk (voiced in the movie version by Rosie O’Donnell). “They said, ‘You sure you wanna do this eight times a week?’ I said, ‘Sure. Let’s try it.’ So I tried it. It was hard at first because they gave us two months of just training with the ape language and the flying. Now it’s second nature.”

Then there was the vertigo. “It took me the entire two months because, when I started, I had a fear of heights. So that was crazy. Getting over that, and learning to find my balance took time. The key was just learning to relax, and that only took time.”

Gregory also spends his time profitably on terra firma, particularly when prancing out a jaunty equivalent of “Bosom Buddies” to Tarzan. The song even rates a reprise and wears especially well on his voice—and no wonder: “Phil Collins wrote it for me after he heard me do the role. We had a different song called ‘I Believe in You,’ but we scratched that one, and he wrote ‘Who Better Than Me?’ I like singing it, and it’s fresh. It’s the newest song in the show. We got it, I would say, about a week or two before previews started.” “Who Better Than Me?” was written the day of Collins’ Playbill interview. “When we did that chat,” it was just being written,” the composer recalled. “I was leaving to go back to Switzerland, and I wrote it in about half an hour. I went home and wrote it, and, on the way back, I wrote the words.”

Collins began his career as a performer, doing The Artful Dodger in the original London production of Oliver!—and, if you listen carefully, you’ll find a little doff of the hat to that show. “I Need to Know,” sung by Young Tarzan (Daniel Manche/Alex Rutherford), is a wispy ballad about finding one’s place in the world. “Yep, that’s my ‘Where Is Love?'”

His Oscar-winning carryover from the movie is “You’ll Be in My Heart,” and it’s done to a faretheewell by a grateful Merle Dandridge, who plays the gorilla mother who protects Tarzan as an orphaned infant and raises him as her own over the roaring objections of her male mate (Shuler Hensley). “It’s absolutely an honor to sing that song, and Phil Collins has been an absolute angel to me, so encouraging and kind every step of the way.”

Hensley, who has done quite well for himself limning dark holes in the center of the stage (his Tony-winning Jud Fy of Oklahoma!, just for instance), plays Tarzan’s hot-tempered and unloving father. “The interesting thing in my Broadway career is that I tend to take characters that aren’t really truly defined and be able to do the what-if game that actors do to make them work,” he said. “My role wasn’t in the animated movie very much at all, maybe two scenes, so we went back to the book. In the movie, we just saw him as the mean old whatever, and we’ve tried to bring more layers to that for the musical.”

Strickland and Gambatese met the press together as The Josh and Jen Show, giving the smart-ass reporter a chance to extend his hand tentatively and say ‘You would be . . .Tarzan’ and ‘You would be . . . Jane.’”

The high-flying scenes they insisted are safe. “What’s really good,” said Strickland, “is that we have all these special climbers who are on set with us, hidden in places that you can’t see, and they’re actually double-checking and making sure everything is okay.”

Gambatese agreed. “I think, when we first started, it wasn’t that it was dangerous—it was just that it was foreign to us. But Disney has always made sure that there are so many safety measures in place. I might have felt nervous, but I’ve never felt it was dangerous.”

Still, their skill does give actors something new to crow about: “I Sing! I Dance! I Fly!” Yes, dears, Mary Martin started this way. Now, off to your high-flying happy ending . . .

In conclusion, let me just say “AAAAAHHHHH-ah-a-AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH-ah-a-AAAAHHHH!”

The cast gives its opening night curtain call.
The cast gives its opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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