Eight years ago, Slow Burn Theatre Co. got its start at West Boca High School Performing Arts Center. The plucky company, the brainchild of Patrick Fitzwater and Matthew Korinko, quickly developed a loyal following by specializing in productions of musicals that were good, but not necessarily commercial successes on Broadway.
Their critically-acclaimed (and tight budgeted) productions of cult favorites like “Assassins,” “Side Show,” “Parade,” “Carrie” and “Bonnie & Clyde” got the attention of execs at the Broward Center and, for the past two seasons, the company has been producing even bigger musicals in the center’s Amaturo Theater, including “Big Fish,” “Big River” and “Titanic.”
But there is more than a fine line between the finicky factors behind those shows’ faults—primarily narrow audience appeal and big budgets—and a real flop like Disney’s “Tarzan,” which opened the company’s ninth season this weekend.
Disney Theatrical had no reason not to expect another big hit following the success of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” The source material, the 1999 animated film, had been a box office success grossing nearly $450 million worldwide and “You’ll be in My Heart” earned composer Phil Collins a Golden Globe and an Oscar. His score would also nab a Grammy.
But something went terribly wrong along the way. Even with a reported $15 million to spend by genius director and stage designer Bob Crowley, “Tarzan” remained as two-dimensional on the Broadway stage in 2006 as it did on celluloid, devoid of the stylistic and innovative approach Julie Taymor lent to “Lion King” or the complex moral lessons and love story that underscored “Beauty and the Beast.” The show closed after just 486 performances.
Writer David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) offers a straightforward telling of Edgar Rice Burrough’s tale of a human (Natale Pirotta) raised in African jungle by apes (Danté J. L. Murray and Shonda L. Thurman). He discovers Jane Porter (Lindsey Corey) and her father (Michael Krautz) on a safari to encounter said apes, along with their evil guide Clayton (Michael Cartwright). And, like other Disney cartoons of the era, Tarzan has a wisecracking sidekick, Terk (Darius J. Manuel), and an ensemble of dancing and tumbling gorillas.
Slow Burn’s Fitzwater, his cast and creative team offer Broward Center audiences a valiant effort to make the experience as entertaining as possible.
Fitzwater manages to milk every one-liner from Hwang’s book, while also emphasizing the scant, politically-correct references to animal rights and basic human morality. Serving double duty as choreographer, his signature moves are particularly suited to the band of gorillas.
Music director Eric Alsford also makes the most of Collins’ score, which never offers the audience a full rendering of his most tuneful songs. Pirrotta and Corey sing well, considering how little opportunity the show affords.
Rick Pena once again amazes with dozens of handmade costumes inspired by the Broadway production, and set designer Michael McClain offers an interesting interpretation of the jungle with green and yellow paper parasols forming the overgrown forest canopy.
Fitzwater reportedly had been losing sleep over the flying effects that keep the show aloft. He can now rest easy because Tarzan swung effortlessly across the stage throughout and lent some real pizazz to the production.
There were few children in the audience on opening night, but they would seem to be the ideal audience for this live action cartoon. Devoted Slow Burn fans should not be discouraged because the company still has an exciting season ahead, including the tuneful “The Secret Garden” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Slow Burn Theatre Co. presents Disney’s “Tarzan the Musical” in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale through Nov. 5. Tickets are available at BrowardCenter.org.