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Tune Thursday: How a fine-tuned "Tarzan" now wows theater fans in the Netherlands

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Tune Thursday: How a fine-tuned "Tarzan" now wows theater fans in the Netherlands

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Broadway insiders were said to be stunned when they heard about these reviews:

  • “Visual effects truly out of this world ... A worthy successor to ' The Lion King' ” -- Metro

  • ““Spectacular aerial acrobatics, rocking pop songs and true passion are but a few of the ingredients of (this) dynamic musical” -- SP!TS

 
 
The cast of Disney's first international production of "Tarzan," Broadway's High Flying
Adventure at the Circustheatre near Amsterdam
-- Photo by Deen van Meer
Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Musicals.nl

  • "Larger than its American predecessor ... A true jaw-dropper" -- NRC Handelsbad

  • “Pulling out all the stops to create a true spectacle” -- TROUW

Wait a minute. These were really-for-real critics saying nice things about "Tarzan" ? The musical that the New York Times called " ... a writhing green blob with music' ? How is that possible ?

Well, first of all, this is the first international production of this new Disney musical that we're talking about here. More importantly, this is a version of the show that's been tweaked and plussed by both "Tarzan" 's original creative team as well as by theatrical producer & media tycoon Joop van den Ende.

Mind you, it was easy for Joop's staff to work together with Disney Theatrical on the fine-tuning of "Tarzan" 's first international production. After all, van den Ende's company, Stage Entertainment and the Mouse had been co-producing shows for more than a decade now. And between the two of them, they've mounted six Disney musicals and entertained tens of millions of people all over Europe.

 
Copyright 2007 Stage Entertainment

Which was why -- long before the original Broadway production of "Tarzan" had actually begun previewing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre -- Disney Theatrical was inviting van den Ende's creative team to come over to the U.S. So that they could then get some sense of the sort of show that Bob Crowley and his co-horts were trying to put together.

So back in early 2006, Joop's troupe flew over to New York City and visited with the "Tarzan" cast as they rehearsed on Stage 2 at Steiner Studios in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. Van den Ende's people watched as aerial designer Pichon Baldinu put the performers through their paces, swinging & dangling from harnesses while high above the soundstage floor.

Joop's creative team also reviewed many of the concepts that Disney Theatrical had originally considered for "Tarzan." And among these was staging this new musical inside of a vast open arena a la Cirque de Soleil. With the actors often performing directly over the heads of the audience.


Ron Link as Tarzan swings across the stage in the first international production of
"Tarzan," Broadway's High Flying Adventure at the Circustheatre near Amsterdam
Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Musicals.nl

Recognizing that the Circustheatre (I.E. The 1800-seat venue where Stage Entertainment would be presenting the European premiere of "Tarzan") would actually lend itself better to the original concept of the show, Joop's staff decided that their version of this new Disney musical would feature much more flying over the audience. More moments when the cast would swing straight out over the heads of those people seated in the front orchestra section.

And seeing as Disney Theatrical had cast "American Idol" finalist Josh Strickland in the title role of their new musical, van den Ende's team decided to go Mickey one better by building an entire reality series around their search for the perfect Tarzan. That program, entitled "Wie Wordt Tarzan ?," debuted on Dutch television in the Fall of 2006, with over 800 performers initially auditioning for this part. Joop's staff was eventually able to winnow that talented group down to five finalists. Who then competed against one another to prove who was the very best performer when it came to acting, singing and dancing. (You can actually see an excerpt from this program -- where four of the finalists swap out playing a scene with this production's Jane, Chantal Janzen -- by clicking on this link.)


The five finalists for "Wie Wordt Tarzan ?," the Dutch television reality
program where viewers ultimately selected Ron Link to play the title
role in the first international production of "Tarzan."
Copyright 2007 SBS / Stage Entertainment

In the end, it was this show's viewers (Who voted via the Internet) who selected Ron Link to play the title role in the first international production of "Tarzan." FYI: Just like Josh Strickland, Link had once been a finalist on Holland's version of "American Idol."

Anyway ... Thanks to "Wie Wordt Tarzan ?," Dutch theater fans were now well aware of this new Disney musical months prior to its official premiere at Circustheatre. Which really helped boost advance ticket sales for "Tarzan" 's first international production.

Of course, by this time, the Broadway version of "Tarzan" had been open for several months. And Joop's creative team were well aware of all of the underwhelming reviews that Disney's newest musical had received stateside.


Copyright 2006 Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved. Tarzan
® Owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and Used by Permission.

Now, this news might have discouraged a lesser group of showmen. But not Joop van den Ende's staff. Working directly with "Tarzan" 's original creative team (Who actually welcomed a chance to revisit the show), Joop's troupe identified many ways that this show could be improved and plussed.

Chief among these was bringing Sergio Trujillo to redo much the show's choreography. Best known these days for that he recently did on the Broadway smash, "Jersey Boys," Sergio reworked many of the numbers that Australian contemporary ballet star Meryl Tankard had originally done for "Tarzan."


The cast & creative team for the first international production of "Tarzan" gather to celebrate
the official start of rehearsal -- Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Musicals.nl

Joop's group also insisted that -- in order to make the most of the Circustheatre's performance space -- that more Cirque de Soleil moments be folded into the show. Take -- for example -- how Jane makes her entrance in the Dutch production. Instead of just walking out on stage, Miss Porter now enters from the back of the hall and walks through the audience.

Mind you, what adds to the fun of this moment in the show is -- as Jane comes down the aisle -- Tarzan suddenly appears high above the floor of Circustheatre's auditorium. Literally hanging above the audience seated in the hall, the ape man then observes this beautiful creature as she carefully makes her way through the jungle.


 Chantal Janzen as Jane and Ron Link as Tarzan in Disney's first international
production of "Tarzan," Broadway's High Flying Adventure at the
Circustheatre near Amsterdam
-- Photo by Deen van Meer
Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Musicals.nl

Let me stress here that we're not talking about radical surgery here. This was refining, not retooling. Just a few nips and tucks. A re-choreographed scene here, a new lyric (Provided by Phil Collins himself, by the way) there. Now add in van den Ende's truly inspired promotion of the first international production of "Tarzan" coupled with the fact that this new Disney musical is now being staged inside a theater that actually lends itself to all of Pichon Baldinu's flying & bungee-ing ... And Disney Theatrical (And Stage Entertainment, of course) now has a hit musical on its hands. In Holland, anyway.

So the big question now becomes ... Will any of these changes be incorporated into the Broadway version of "Tarzan" ? Well, Disney Theatrical did make changes to the Broadway version of "The Lion King" after the London production of that show opened in 1999. Why For? Because Julie Taymor restaged some of the numbers for this Tony Award winning musical so that they'd then better fit the performance space at the Lyceum. And Taymor was so pleased with these changes that she had them folded into the Broadway version of "The Lion King."


 Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Similarly, new bits of stage business that proved to be successful in the road companies of this Broadway smash eventually found their way into the original version of "The Lion King." So it's not like Disney Theatrical hasn't done something like this before.

The only problem is ... Given the physical set-up of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, it's going to be extremely hard to incorporate many of the changes that have been made for "Tarzan" 's first international production into the Broadway version of the show. But -- that said -- that still doesn't mean that the folks at Disney Theatrical won't fold these pluses & improvements into any future productions of their newest musical.

You know what's ironic about all this? Disney Theatrical fixed "Tarzan" the way that Broadway producers have been fixing troubled shows for more than a century now. By taking it on the road. Way, way, way on the road, admittedly. All the way to Holland. But -- in the end -- the critics agree. "Tarzan" is now a much better show for having made that journey.


 Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Well, here's hoping that Disney Theatrical's next production -- "The Little Mermaid" (Which begins its out-of-town try-out on July 26th in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts ) -- really benefits from its time on the road.

Your thoughts?

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  • Whow, an article about the Netherlands for a change! And you're right Jim, "our" version of "Tarzan" is just wonderful, and I can't compare it to the domestic version since I haven't seen that one, but since our critics were a lot more positive, I'm guessing we did a better job here.

    Well, that is kinda the power of Joop van de Ende, to turn anything and everything in stunning entertainment. And let not forget that Chantal Janzen is also a major force contributing to the success of "Tarzan", since she is a big musical star over here nowadays.

  • I really wish I could get to any big city to see one of these shows.  Unfortunately, living in Springfield, MO and traveling on a college student's budget makes that hard.  

    Any news on what Disney Theatrical might be doing in London next year?  I'll be studying there, and that'll be my best chance to catch something like this.

  • Hate to keep bringing this up - but I would like to know how "Mary Poppins" is doing on Broadway. I've read it's got a few bugs too. If so, I hope they get worked out before the show (hopefully) goes on tour.

  • The newspapers METRO and SP!TS are free and the worst in the Netherlands.

    With the worst critics EVER:)

    They should not be taken all that seriously.

    Also, the Dutch reviews I read weren't all that positive..

  • The Dutch reviews were very positive... and especially the word of mouth. A lot of my friends went to visit this musical, and they had a great time. They told me it is not as good as the Lion King, but it is a fantastic musical due to the stage set up. They told me that the audience really gets envolved in the story, because off all the close contact between the audience and the actors. I guess the traditional concept of a Cirque Du Soleil type show, just works better than the now used broadway version in the US.

    One thing I do HATE about the Dutch productions is that they translate the SONGS! Why oh Why do they translate the songs into our stupid language! They should just leave them in english so I can sing along :(

  • gigglesock - they won't be able to replicate the sets and staging of Mary Poppins on the road tour.  We visited NYC from Michigan last Christmas and it was well worth the trip - it was a bug-free presentation and was enthustically received.  (feathers - I'm sure it will still be playing in London next year and highly recommend).

    We saw the US Tarzan, too - Kerchak and Kala stole every scene they were in and were the high points of the production, but most of the program didn't hit that level of excellence.  Would be interesting to see the "plussed" version.

  • I too think it's important to add a word of caution regarding the "raving" Dutch reviews. First off I have to agree with fellow Dutchman "empoor", Sp!ts and Metro can not be taken seriously, ever. NRC Handelsblad and Trouw on the other hand are both fine papers. But for some reason even the most respected newspapers of the Netherlands become starry-eyed by the sheer largeness of Joop's productions. The Lion King, in its "Dutch" rendition was not a good show, it was overwhelming, with impressive and original sets, costumes and fine music, but emotionally it didn't do much. Acting, stage presence and true passion were all lacking. I haven't seen Tarzan (and probably won't) but I also haven't come across true critical review of any Joop/Disney production staged in the Netherlands. Maybe "our" Tarzan is better, but don't take the word of Dutch newspapers for it. Or box office revenues for that matter, because Dutch musical fans will attend and love any Stage Holding production, no matter what the actual quality of the show.

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