Coming at the end of the so-called Disney Renaissance, the 1999 animated film “Tarzan” followed blockbusters like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” By then, Disney’s movie-to-musical machine had been firmly established, and the transition of “Tarzan” from screen to stage in 2006 was a no-brainer.
With songs by Phil Collins and a book by playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”), “Tarzan” may be formulaic, but the formula is a proven success.
Filled with dramatic sights and sounds, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s production of “Tarzan” (through March 26), directed and choreographed by Kenneth Beck, remains a moving story of love and belonging.
The show gets off to a rocky start with a chaotic first scene. In the opening number, “Two Worlds,” a shipwrecked couple gets killed by a leopard, leaving behind an orphaned infant.
In a parallel plotline, a pair of apes, Kerchak and Kala, lose their cub to the same leopard but soon stumble across the abandoned baby.
It’s a loud, head-spinning whirlwind of action and a series of aerial effects and projections only add to the confusion.
But the moment things settle down, the story takes off. The show’s first act is tightly scripted, with characters reeling from longing and loss.
Young Tarzan, played with verve by the young actor Wesley Adams, is a kid lost between worlds. His adoptive parents (Louis Dudoussat and Marie Becnel) argue over Tarzan’s inclusion in their band of gorillas — he wants to send the boy away, while she holds him close, a surrogate for the child she lost — fracturing their relationship.
Tarzan’s one friend, the wisecracking ape Terk (Luke Halpern), another outcast, provides conventional comic relief but also highlights the loneliness of the characters and the need for belonging.
The production is studded with highflying effects — a few truly impressive, others superfluous and less-than-graceful — but it’s the emotional performances that keep the show grounded.
The show’s most impressive spectacles come from the ensemble, a band of apes (creatively costumed by Emily Billington) engaged in choreographed bits of joyous monkey business, most prominently in the instrumental dance numbers “Ten Years Pass” and “Trashin’ the Camp,” which kicks off the show's second act.
The arrival of Jane, her father and their guides breaks the spell of the immersive jungle setting designed by Stephen Gifford. Jane, played by Christian Tarzetti, is introduced at the end of the first act in “Waiting for This Moment,” a number that’s surprisingly sluggish, given the beautiful flora- and fauna-inspired costumes and bright performance from Tarzetti in the act that follows.
The plot gets pulled in various directions as Jane and Tarzan grow closer, while Jane and her father (Butch Caire) realize the nefarious intentions of their guides (John Michael Has and Paul Bello). Meanwhile, Tarzan drifts further away from his family, his loyalties divided between Jane and the jungle. Once again, the script deftly manages these intersecting stories, and the cast — led by James Royce Edwards as a buff, grown-up Tarzan — delivers performances that embrace the comedy and melodrama while keeping the story’s tension intact.
“Tarzan” isn’t packed with the kinds of memorable songs that define other Disney shows from this era, but there is one big hit, “You’ll Be in My Heart,” a song that was held over from the movie and earned Phil Collins an Academy Award and a Grammy nomination. The song bookends the production. It’s used early on as an ode to loss but then reprised later as a powerful testament to the bonds forged between Tarzan and the families that form around him.