Corinne Marie and Joe Horton in The Henegar’s production of TARZAN The Musical. Photo by Niko Stamos.
By PAM HARBAUGH
My heart is full. How could you watch “Tarzan” the stage musical at The Henegar and not get a little verklempt by the sheer love and determination of the cast, crew and director of this show?
Let’s face it, everybody involved with what feels like the near-death to the re-birth of The Henegar is on edge. From the new management to the familiar faces remaining, everyone…I mean everyone…is doing their best to help the Henegar flourish big time, the way so many have dreamed of; and for which so many dedicated former employees of the Henegar gave their blood, sweat and tears for a long time.
For sure, living in our current political and social climate, it’s become automatic to take sides. But Team Tarzan has not done that. Just like the powerful tribe depicted in the musical, the cast and crew have come together to support each other and remind the Space Coast that The Henegar has the right stuff.
“We all worked together as a group to focus on the show rather than the things around us, and support each other through it,” said ensemble member McKenna Russell.
Judging by the enthusiastic response from its opening night audience, Team Tarzan succeeded. Henegar Center audiences shot to their feet in a standing ovation and squealed with delight. Yes, that’s a common occurrence on opening night. But I tell you, when Joe Horton, who plays Tarzan, swung onto stage for his curtain call, it was truly thrilling.
Then, as is tradition here, patrons gathered in the lobby to express their gratitude to the cast for a show well done.
“It was marvelous,” said Charlene Horton of West Melbourne. “I want to come again. It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen here.”
Bob Fontaine, also of West Melbourne, congratulated the producers for deciding on recorded music instead of more expensive live orchestra, a subject causing a stir of controversy.
“(The show) was as good as any I’ve seen here,” he said.
Hugh and Tonyia Gibbons of Merritt Island were all smiles, saying they went because they read about it in Brevard Culture and knew they couldn’t miss it.
Corinne Marie, who does such a splendid job in her role as Jane, said the audience felt like family and that they all – patrons, cast and crew – want nothing but the best for The Henegar.
“Oh absolutely,” she said. “All of our hearts are definitely in the right place for this production. We come together as a tribe. And with support coming from new management, it’s been a really fun, Disney roller coaster ride.”
That dizzying ride began a month ago when “Tarzan,” director Dominic Del Brocco was faced with a mighty challenge.
“We had to completely change the show from top to bottom,” he said. “We had to start from scratch with re-blocking and new choreography.”
There was no choice. In a new alliance with Titusville Playhouse, the Henegar board began to see just how dire its financial health really was.
The Henegar board’s budget for “Tarzan” was slashed from $42,000 to $29,000, with more than a third of that for royalties alone.
That forced a more streamlined, less expensive production concept. Scenery was borrowed from Manatee Players, costumes were rented, recorded music replaced a live orchestra and plans to fly actors over the stage were severely modified. Lighting designer Luke Atkison and sound designer Spencer Crosswell, both resident designers at Titusville Playhouse, volunteered their services for “Tarzan.”
Still, there remains the steamy jungle, swinging vines, a shipwreck, bounding gorillas, and more which form the substance for the 2006 musical with book by David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) and music by Phil Collins (Genesis). The stage musical is based on the 1999 Disney movie.
“The positive side is it’s better use of the space,” Del Brocco said. “I’m actually happier with what we are working with now.”
While he had to change a lot, his initial director’s approach in creating the gorilla tribe remained the same. He used trampolines, hidden amidst the scenic units, to give lift to the bounding apes, who wear costumes symbolic of non-humans and makeup suggesting a primitive tribe. (No, they do not wear hokey gorilla costumes.) Furthermore, the actors playing the gorillas are from gymnastic and dance studios, guaranteeing agile, eye-popping movement. The result is a production filled with apes seemingly defying gravity while they jump and leap and flip across the stage.
Then, when the borrowed set arrived, three weeks before the show opened, Del Brocco discovered that the towers would lend for even more invention.
“We went from a concept that was very linear with one main platform in the center, low and flat,” he said. “Where now, we went to a set with three towers of different heights and sizes with different levels. We can rotate and move those towers to different locations. That gives endless possibilities.”
But still, he said, the changes have been demanding on a cast already charged with telling the complex story of an infant boy and his parents ship wrecked on an African shore. In the story, a leopard (Jessica Henwood) kills the parents. A tribe of gorillas take in the boy and his adopted mother, Kala (Mahalia Gronigan…OMG her voice!), names him Tarzan.
We see him as a little boy (Connor DeRoche and Micah Anderson alternate), having great fun scurrying along on all fours like his ape family does. His fate accelerates the day he makes a tool and his wise ape father, Kerchak (Joshua Doyle…OMG his voice!), says he must leave.
Professor Porter (Paul Grubbs) arrives one day with his daughter, Jane (Marie), to study the jungle’s flora and fauna. About to be devoured by man-eating plants, Jane is rescued by a vine-swinging, fully grown Tarzan (Joe Horton…just, OMG…). The bad guy is rifle-toting Clayton (Rob Kenna…he loves the role too much) who has his eyes set on the money he could get if he brings a live gorilla back to England.
In between the story, great voices deliver pop music songs that melt your heart and set your foot tapping.
Cast members like Kenna, who has become a familiar face at the Henegar and Melbourne Civic Theatre, point to Del Brocco as a role model for Team Tarzan.
“He held us together,” Kenna said. “He is Mr. Positive and had to be flexible. He believed in all of us. In that way we all rallied behind Dominic 100 percent.”
Kenna also congratulated Nathan Dobson, the stage manager, who helped hold the show together as well and got the cast and crew through the many changes.
Del Brocco sees the symbolism in the show and in its greater context:
“I think the biggest surprise audiences will find watching ‘Tarzan’ is not the high flying vine swings, the agility of the cast or its outstanding technical elements, but its heart,” Del Brocco said. “(It’s a) heartfelt warm and loving story about family, trust, belonging and understanding the struggle of one’s self.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Tarzan” the stage musical runs through March 24 at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne, FL. Tickets are $19 to $29. Call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.
This is an edited version of a story running in the Melbourne Beachsider. Read a review later in Brevard Culture.