It was a positively balmy day in November last Sunday afternoon, but rather than frolic in such a rare autumnal phenomenon, hundreds of folks chose instead to fill the seats at the Higgins-Demas Theater at Mount Desert Island High School to see this year’s fall musical production of “Tarzan.”
They were well rewarded for their choice.
The audience was treated to a Broadway show never seen before on this stage. There were no adorable do-re-mi singing children, no cockney lasses transforming to fair ladies, no freckle-faced orphans wanting more porridge or the sun to come out tomorrow. There was one orphan, a vine-swinging, chest-thumping, jungle kid named “Tarzan.” The audience watched him grow from a mischievous boy, played by an adorable Rex DeMuro, with his sweet falsetto singing voice, somehow reminiscent of a very, very young Neil Young. He became a strapping young man (Kai Fox, also adorable, with a good strong baritone.)
It all started with a cleverly conceived shipwreck in which the survivors were a young couple (Carolyn Graber and Jacob Sanner) and their infant.
Having escaped drowning, the couple was quickly dispatched by a leopard, a sinuous Chelsea Schroeder who was so convincing as a man-eating cat that a child in the front row buried her head in her mother’s lap.
The leopard’s fight to the death with the older Tarzan was excellently choreographed. The baby, who survived the cat attack, was later found by a grieving she-gorilla who had recently lost her own baby. Mama bears and tiger moms, move over. Mary Paola as Tarzan’s devoted, protective ape mom Kala gave new meaning to the tough but tender love and life lessons a mother must impart to her child. After all, it really is a jungle out there.
And speaking of jungles, kudos go to Carlene Hirsch and her crew’s excellent set, which evoked a lush jungle setting that would make Dian Fossey and her gorillas feel right at home.
Costume designer Marilee Marchese outdid herself here, creating gorilla costumes that, while stylized rather than literal, never made us doubt for a moment that we were watching a family of apes.
And such a fine family of knuckle walking, hooting, nit-picking primates they are. This must have been a physical challenge for the actors, who spent much of their time on stage squatting, crouching and loping about on their knuckles. All maintained character flawlessly throughout.
Standouts in this hairy crew were Desmond Reifsnyder and Bonnie Snyder as Terk and Teka, Tarzan’s punkish teenage pals, who managed to steal every scene they were in. Emerson Jeffery also did a fine job as Kala’s troubled mate Kerchak, who could see no good in introducing a human child into their society. Cala Coffman and Emily Homer as Keva and Kima, assisted by Jacob Sanner, delivered one of the finest musical moments of the show with their performance of “In My Eyes.”
Most of the first act is pretty heavy stuff, with shipwrecks, leopard attacks and Tarzan’s banishment from the tribe, when he figured out how to make a weapon. The fun stuff began when botanist Jane Porter and her anthropologist mother (a feisty Abby Kelley) arrived along with their gun-toting guide Clayton (Zach Uliano, who delivered all the malice his character required).
Thistle Swann was deliciously cast as Jane, the demure Victorian lady who found herself inexplicable drawn to the handsome, virile, virtually naked, young wild man who literally swung into her life to rescue her from giant spiders. Jane has the best lines in the play, and Swann delivered them with perfect comic timing. She also has a scintillating, pure soprano voice, which was showcased best in her duet with Tarzan, “For the First Time.” In short order, like Tarzan, we all fell in love with her.
Frank Bachman’s direction was excellent – loved the apes rolling down the aisles of the theater. And while the songs for this show are not particularly memorable, music director Brownyn Kortge coaxed some great vocals from her lead cast and chorus.
Rebecca Edmondson’s band also is very good, although for some of the more rousing songs, especially the ones with a lot of percussion and brass, the volume overwhelmed the vocals. Even Mary Paola, who is a great projector, was almost completely drowned out in her first song, “In my Heart.” Fortunately, this song was reprised in the second act, and the balance was improved.
The makeup was excellent too, right down to the ape’s toes. But when Kala mentioned that her boy was covered in mud, a little mud would have been good. Unqualified kudos go to the tech crew for their lighting effects and the innovative ocular screens on either side of the stage, which showed the audience the reflections from a pool of water on stage. Genius!
For something fun, new, often thrilling and always heartwarming – and not too long – don’t miss one of the last three shows of “Tarzan” on Friday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 19, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Visit www.mdidrama.org.