Dayton’s 2015-2016 theater season has been impressively ushered in by Epiphany Lutheran Church as evidenced in the Epiphany Players Drama Ministry’s delightfully touching and vibrant production of Disney’s “Tarzan,” the organization’s 25th anniversary presentation.
Adapted by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) based on the 1999 Academy Award-winning film of the same name and the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “Tarzan” reiterates the power of love and family in its engaging tale of a boy raised by apes in West Africa following the death of his parents who ultimately realizes and comes to terms with his true identity. The core struggle between Tarzan’s ape parents Kala and Kerchak, particularly Kerchak’s reluctance to embrace Tarzan as his own, is a prime source of drama within a story that tends to be a bit stiff and occasionally slow-moving, but Hwang specifically keeps tensions high late in Act 2 when the Brits visiting the jungle on expedition reveal dastardly intent. Also, pop legend Phil Collins satisfactorily fleshes out the material by adding nine pleasant if unremarkable new tunes to the five strong numbers he wrote for the film including “You’ll Be In My Heart,” “Two Worlds” and “Trashin’ The Camp.”
Director/choreographer Megan Wean Sears, delivering incredibly earthy, fully grounded and believably primate movement, crisply guides over 60 actors, a fascinating sight common to Epiphany’s long-standing tradition of casting everyone who auditions. Her sharp routines are an exuberant plus (“Trashin’ The Camp” is an upbeat Act 2 opening romp), but the terrifically authentic world she creates (heightened by great flying effects courtesy of ZFX) and the first-rate character development she ensures equally speaks to her artistic strengths.
The handsome Jeffrey Mack, leading the Flora Cast in the titular role and given a tremendous entrance to boot, exhibits wonderful physicality, solid, pop-infused vocals, credible complexity, and deep expressiveness in one of his most challenging and finest performances. Rachel Woeste brings pert sophistication to her firm portrayal of biologist Jane Porter, Tarzan’s love interest and educator. Brianna Russ, poignant and purposeful, fully inhabits the affectionate Kala, beautifully joining forces with Mack for a tender reprise of “You’ll Be In My Heart.” Justin Matthews is a very formidable, no-nonsense Kerchak. Kyle Bates is enjoyably chipper as Jane’s professor-father. Margo Russ has a ball as Tarzan’s energetic gorilla sidekick Terk. Tom Klosterman oozes arrogant menace as devious hunter Clayton. Liza Russ (an adorable Young Tarzan), Lindsay Rich (Young Terk), Eric Strange (Snipes), Meredith Russ (Leopard), Timmy Seiler (Tarzan’s Father), and Meghan Rupper (Tarzan’s Mother) are also noteworthy in featured roles.
Additionally, Sears’ creative team is outstanding across the board. Ray Zupp’s richly detailed set is an adventurous playground complete with ropes, netting and slides. Matthew P. Benjamin’s lighting design effectively conveys many evocative tones. Stellar costumers Maria Klueber and Lori Watamaniuk, clothing the majority of the cast in ruffled black, vividly establish a jungle essence. Musical director David Brush steadily leads a fine off-stage orchestra.
If you’re searching for an entertaining outing with a sincere message I assure you this immersive “Tarzan,” absolutely surpassing its overblown and mediocre 2006 original Broadway production, seals the deal. By all means it is a striking testament to the pedigree of Epiphany’s rich theatrical legacy.
“Tarzan” continues through July 19 at Epiphany Lutheran Church, 6430 Far Hills Ave., Centerville. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Act One: 55 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Patrons are advised the show is double-cast particularly starring Fauna Cast members Kean Petrello and Cecily Dowd at the Thursday and Sunday performances. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors (60 and over), and $5 for children (5 and under). For tickets, call (937) 433-1449 ext. 105. For more information, visit www.epiphanydayton.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, every summer a charitable organization is selected to receive a portion of the proceeds. This year’s beneficiary is the Haitian Timoun Foundation. Visit www.htflive.org for more information.