In my quest to cover all manner of performing arts groups, large and small, and always in search of new discoveries, I was pleased to see “Tarzan, The Stage Musical” presented by Wayne Township Community Theatre on Sunday. Located at Ben Davis High School, the summer theatre program was founded in 2002 by the Wayne Township Education Foundation. Held in the school’s large auditorium, the production was blessed with quality sound and lighting capabilities and stage facilities that rival some of the best venues in the area.
Co-Directed by Jerico Hughes and Craig Underwood, “Tarzan” featured a cast of 37 that included both adults and students of all ages. Music direction was provided by Will Scharfenberger. Hughes, a Ben Davis teacher, was also the show’s choreographer as well as its vocal director. Underwood is a Chicago-based actor.
“Tarzan” is based on the 1999 Walt Disney animated film of the same title. The songs are written by British rocker Phil Collins, with a book by David Henry Hwang. The story follows that of the Disney film, which is based on “Tarzan of the Apes” a novel published in 1912. It’s the story of Tarzan, an orphan raised by gorillas, who meets Jane, a young English naturalist, with whom he falls in love. One of Jane’s traveling companions conspires to kill gorillas, forcing Tarzan to choose between his animal and human natures.
When reviewing community theatre, I am always careful to remember I am judging the performances of avocational actors, as opposed to trained and experienced professionals, who make their living working on the stage. Having said that, I found that, though the quality of acting performances in “Tarzan” was mixed, for the most part, the actors cast in the primary roles turned in solid performances.
Standing out, in particular, was lead actor Johnnie Taylor, whose portrayal of the title role was outstanding. Not only did his muscular physique fit the character, his acting and vocal performance revealed a rare talent. Ultimately, his energetic portrayal of the sheltered, guileless and kind-hearted Tarzan was a study in nuance, dimension and physicality that made his depiction of the ape-man truly special.
Also deserving of high praise is Jamie Riechman, who played opposite Taylor in the role of the beautiful, feisty and independent Jane. Also an outstanding actor and singer, Riechman showed presence and chemistry with Taylor, with whom she shined in their duets “Different” and “For the First Time.”
Kudos to the show’s directors for the good job they did in staging and blocking such a large cast and for creating effective stage pictures. Deserving of praise, as well, was Hughes. His choreography was inventive and the dancers, all of whom exhibited varying degrees of ability, were successful in its execution.
The show’s six-piece orchestra led by conductor Scharfenberger, who also played piano, was miked quite well, producing a much larger sound than expected. Collins’s score, which I found to be pleasant yet unremarkable, was interpreted beautifully by Scharfenberger and his fellow musicians.
Lastly, the show’s entire creative team deserves props for tackling such an ambitious project. Using their limited resources to the fullest, they created Tarzan’s world with fitting costumes, sets, lighting and sound that brought it suitably to life.
As I often do when attending community theatre productions, I am struck not only by the obvious joy and commitment projected by the performers, but also by the enthusiastic response of friends, family, and in this case, fellow students in the audience there to support them. Their obvious pride is always evident at meet and greets in theater lobbies where cast members gather to receive the adulation of their fans. “Tarzan” was no exception. Looking back on my own community theatre experiences, which I recall with great fondness, I was reminded of what an important purpose community theatre is for both participants and audiences, not only an effective educational tool, but also an ideal community unifier. A jewel in the crown of the west side, Wayne Township Community Theatre is effectively fulfilling its mission.
For tickets and information about the theatre’s next show, “The Lion King Experience, Jr.” July 19, go to wtef.wayne.k12.in.us/wayne-township-community-theatre.