Tarzan, the musical, is living proof of Bill McKibben’s theory that nature, as a concept, has disappeared in our time. Tarzan lives in a jungle. The Disney Company’s idea of a jungle, as conveyed by director-designer Bob Crowley, is a rigidly rectangular open space, lined on three sides by strips of green curtain in a hue I sincerely hope is not found in nature. Within this pastel plastic box, humans walk, except when seized, and a chorus of great apes swings on vines. Whenever the chorus is swinging, the square box comes alive for a minute or two, only to sink back into a very un-jungle-like somnolence with every line of David Henry Hwang’s after-school-special dialogue and every whine of Phil Collins’s teenpop three-chord tune.
Where nature’s concerned, Disney can get anything wrong. Barring one leopard and some human-size giant bugs, this jungle has no animals except Tarzan’s gorilla family; presumably all the other species are under exclusive contract to The Lion King. Until the inevitable professor’s inevitably crooked guide starts scheming, the story mainly consists of Tarzan’s ape foster parents bickering about their adopted child. If you’ve tingled to the erotic component of the Tarzan-Jane story over decades of Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, and other adult, sexy Tarzans, you won’t be thrilled by the pallid teen romance here. As in Disney’s misreading of Beauty and the Beast, most of it’s about the heroine teaching her savage swain table manners. Everybody onstage works very hard, and I weep for them all, especially Chester Gregory II, who can swing and sing at the same time.