Seen on Broadway: The 2005-2006 Broadway season has ended, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a Tarzan yell—that is, Tarzan, the Disney musical, based on its 1999 animated hit, which was one of its last to date to incorporate a few songs. Its signature smash, “You’ll Be in My Heart,” won Phil Collins an Oscar, but it wasn’t a “true” show tune, built around a production number; I don’t think any of them were, as Disney shied away from a musical comedy format it had done so much to revive, and the new songs he’s composed for this production don’t much lend themselves to show-stopping, either. They’re basically sonic wallpaper. But, to compensate for the second-rate songs and unambitious, politically correct book (by David Henry Hwang), the walls are quite spectacular. This is as expected from a show that marks the directorial debut of scenic and costume designer Bob Crowley, a triple-threat here, and features equally dazzling contributions from Tony nominee Natasha Katz, sound designer John Shivers and soundscape designer Lon Bender, hair designer David Brian Brown, and makeup designer Naomi Donne.
The design delights begin with the double scrim that opens the show, which charts the seagoing course taken by the human parents of the baby who will grow up to be Tarzan. The ship founders off the African coast, and to be honest, I’m not sure anything else quite surpassed this exciting, even breath-taking, opening, which, thanks to the expert rappelling contributed by De La Guarda aerial designer Pichon Baldinu and all the other hands on deck, uncannily simulates a storm-tossed shipwreck from an underwater perspective. No less amazing is the next, highly cinematic “overhead shot” of the parents coming ashore, with the actors “walking” on the back wall via ropes and harnesses. Incredible. From here, we are thrust into the main environment of the story, the luminous, rectangular green box jungle constructed onstage at the Richard Rodgers, where in time the baby is discovered by his adoptive ape parents, the loving Kala (Merle Dandridge) and the suspicious Kerchak (Shuler Hensley). Crowley’s gorilla-ish costumes strike a suitable balance between human and animal, and the hair and makeup adornments throughout are top-notch. Green is a difficult color to light, but Katz, unsurprisingly, brings out the verdant beauty of Crowley’s set, and adds plentiful dappling as the story progresses, as the youth, named Tarzan, finds a lifelong buddy in Terk (scene-stealer Chester Gregory II, who performs most of his songs upside-down on Baldinu’s ropes) and, as a young man, a new friend, and possible love interest, Jane Porter (Jenn Gambatese).
But Jane’s arrival with her professor father and untrustworthy cronies threatens the security of Tarzan’s ape family, so using the vines he literally swings into family-friendly action. American Idol finalist Josh Strickland is agile and appealing as Tarzan, and his tentative, cross-cultural romance with Jane highlights the show—too bad the other human stuff in Act II is so familiar and unmagical, dragging the production down as the cast goes airborne, flying into and over the audience. There seemed to be less that was new and interesting look at, too, as the spooky, red-eyed black leopards that stalk the apes, and the strange bugs, plants, and web-spinning giant spiders that entice and ensnare Jane, fade into the background. [These are the work of special creatures designer Ivo Coveney. The thickets are full of suppliers: Hudson Scenic Studio, Scenic Technologies, Dazian Fabrics, CMEANN Productions, and Stone Pro Rigging for the set elements; Foy Inventerprise and Hudson Scenic for automation and show control; PRG for lighting, and Masque Sound for audio; Jauchem and Meeh for special effects; and Sunshine Scenic Studios and Aztec Stage Lighting for atmospheric effects.] The lord of the apes is no Lion King. But Disney, unlike other corporate entities repurposing their movie properties for theater, has an innate grasp of what works visually and aurally onstage, and the good sense to hire the best in the business to bring it from the screen to the stage.
Following the success of last season's Twelve Angry Men, it was inevitable that producers would go looking for other testosterone-heavy courtroom thrillers, and that Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial would be at the top of the list. It's solid material, and venerable. It was first produced in 1954, with Henry Fonda (a virtuous, if unlikely, choice for the quietly wily Jewish defense attorney, Greenwald) and Lloyd Nolan as the paranoid, pitiable Captain Queeg, whom Greenwald must undermine to keep his client, part of a (fictional) mutiny aboard a storm-tossed U.S. naval vessel during WW II, out of the brig. The show was revived in 1983, and televised, under Robert Altman's taut direction, in 1988. (The classic 1954 film, with Humphrey Bogart unforgettable as Queeg and a riveting, if again curiously cast, Jose Ferrer as Greenwald, more fully dramatizes Wouk's 1951 novel; he extracted the play from its final chapters). Like the first revival and TV movie, the new Caine cast a Jewish actor, former Friend David Schwimmer, as Greenwald, which made its final scene much more persuasive. And, just as Awake and Sing! is being restaged at its former Broadway residence, so, too, was this production, which was first seen at the Plymouth (now the Gerald Schoenfeld) in the 50's. Clearly, this revival, which reflects the cross-currents of our present-day conflict in Iraq, has the weight of history behind it.
But, while not wholly guilty of dereliction of duty, this new Caine Mutiny didn't quite live up to its ancestry, either. Schwimmer and fellow TV veteran Tim Daly, as Greenwald's friend (and procedural adversary) Challee, give only workmanlike performances, and the direction, by Jerry Zaks, meanders where it should crackle. Queeg is, or should be, a can't-miss part, a pungent, poignant study of the pressures of service, and Tony nominee Zeljko Ivanek hit all the right notes without really cutting through the prevailing adequacy of the production. The same can be said of the design-William Ivey Long's military costumes, and Dan Moses Schreier's martial sound, were rank-and-file, and by-the-book. More intriguing were Paul Gallo's lighting, with its subtly lengthening shadows during each act as the two-day hearing proceeds, and John Lee Beatty's courtroom set, whose revolving turntables reformed as a suite in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel for the last excoriating scene. [PRG provided the lights, Masque Sound the audio, and Hudson Scenic the scenery.] The audience I saw the show with clearly enjoyed this little jolt-but, if this Caine Mutiny were less becalmed, I doubt they would have noticed, which is how a truly ship-shape production should work. As this production closed on May 21, and is reviewed here for the record, better luck next revival.--Robert Cashill