By Ian Rigg
NightBlue Performing Arts Company has taken Disney’s classic Tarzan and brought it to roaring life onstage. This heartfelt and high-flying production is fun for the whole family.
Audiences will be welcomed to the wild from the moment they walk in, because Bob Knuth’s set puts the jungle in jungle gym. There are monkey bars to climb and hang from, platforms to leap from, and ropes for actors to swing on; this set is pure fun and all decked out with hanging twine vines.
JoAnn Robertson brings the jungle to an even more vibrant level of life with her costumes, wigs and make-up design, carefully and creatively rendering the clan of gorillas and the humans in their midst.
The rocketing Phil Collins score pounds as much as it did when audiences first heard it 18 years ago. From his keyboard, music director Michael Kaish conducts a fairly tight chorus and a smashing pit full of powerful players, like the kinetic percussion of Brent Roman and Justin Kono and the doleful, hopeful oboe of David Orlicz.
Director Kevin Bellie has devised one wild show. Perhaps his biggest strength is his smart utilization of the space, which extends into every aspect of the production. His choreography pulses into the ground, only to leave it just as quickly. His blocking is incredibly intricate, down to having apes picking bugs off one another’s fur in the background. Performing triple duty, Bellie also executed some nifty original projection design. He has set up his actors’ playground, and my, how they play.
The ensemble may be the real stars of the show. Jonathan Allsop, Tamara Anderson, Paige Hauer, Ryan Smetana, Mia Hart, and Kara Schoenhofer are phenomenal performers, dynamic dancers who really commit to becoming apes as they ably amble about the stage, and work as a team every bit as admirably as gorillas do.
Khaki Pixley kills it as Kala. She has a sweet and soaring sound, and she really makes audiences feel the ardor and anguish of this mama ape.
With a strong physical presence and a rich voice, Jordan DeBose makes a stoic Kerchak. He brings a bold and stern fury to his performance, but it belies a sincere desire to protect his family, an ape hardened by duty.
Juwon Tyrel Perry brings fast-talking ape Terk to life, giving the great jungle a great motown sound. Lively and boisterous, it’s nice to watch him mentor the incredibly cute Young Tarzan, embodied by Jean-Eduard Rodriguez.
With facial hair that would make a 19th century president jealous, Tim Casey is a delight as Professor Porter. Garrett Haley is admirably odious as the hunter Clayton. As Jane, Rachel Juncker brings warmth and enthusiasm to the young naturalist. It’s fun to watch her flabbergasted discovery of Tarzan, and sweet to see her discovery her relationship with him.
And Jomar Ferreras is just awesome as the titular Tarzan. He brings a raw physicality, an aerial athleticism and an exquisite voice as he leaps about the stage and figures out the human world with a wide-eyed wonder and intelligent enthusiasm. He’s thrown every bit of himself into the jungle, and he’s clearly having a blast.
The tale of the king of the jungle, his two worlds and his one family is a delightful treat. As the weather warms outside the theater, NightBlue’s Tarzan will warm theatregoers’ hearts. It’s the kind of theatre that makes one go, “Aaaa-AH-AH-AHHHHHH.”
NightBlue Performing Arts company presents “Disney’s TARZAN: The Stage Musical” through May 14 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.