Tarzan performs in full swing


Photo by: Kat Torreano

Jackie Jahfetson

The reverberating beat of a vibraphone takes the scene deep into the African jungle. Actors embodying the roles of gorillas stomp and dance around the stage, swinging from vines, belting out a Disney tune that makes audience members want to sing along.

It’s a musical, a story of identity, and the Forest Roberts Theatre (FRT) has worked all year to make Tarzan’s adventure soar on stage.

“Disney’s Tarzan: The Musical” will premiere this Friday, April 13. The play comes as part of FRT’s green season, using repurposed platforms for the set and recycled costumes made from donated clothing. It will also feature the first autism-friendly performance.

For director and NMU theater professor Shelley Russell, “Tarzan” was a play she wanted to do for a long time. But when it came to putting the pieces together, it was surprising how challenging the production was to take on, Russell said.

Adding vine-swinging flight to the actors’ performances required the cast and crew to acquire a new skill set of handling safety cables and harnesses hidden beneath costumes. Other difficulties such as adding special effects like video projections to the set and rifles shooting on stage took practice too, she said.

“We’ve probably put more hours into this sh remember,” Russell said. “We are training professional electricians, sound designers, costumes and actors. We’re setting the standard pretty high for future productions.”

With lots of dance numbers, singing and a huge cast, the most important thing was to make sure everyone worked together, Russell said. It took a “level of professionalism” for each theater member to execute their roles both on and off the stage, she added. But, seeing the audience’s
reactions will be well worth the time and effort the cast and
crew put into this production, she said.

Based on the book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, this Disney story is about an orphan, Tarzan, who grows up in the African wilderness raised by apes.

Tarzan falls in love with a human and must decide whether he wants to join civilization or stay in the wild. No matter whether people are familiar with the 1999 animated film, theater goers can expect to see the show brought to life, she said.

“It’s a beautiful story,” Russell said. “It’s a blast, funny and exciting.”

For senior theatre and entertainment arts major Devin Murphy, this production required a new mindset when it came to his role of playing Kerchak, the gorilla pack leader who is Tarzan’s adopted father. Murphy, who started training for this role last May, said it’s the most physically demanding play he’s been a part of and it has improved his lifestyle.

Acting while flying in the air was something Murphy had not done before, but this added layer of difficulty only improved his acting chops and ability to look at a character in a different way, he said. Though taking on a musical may seem difficult, there’s something “breathtaking” about “purveying emotion” through lyrics rather than just spoken word, he added.

“[When] watching a musical, you have a song that hits you. It’s an amazing feeling for an audience member, and to do that as an actor, it’s a huge blast,” Murphy said.

The “closeness” of the cast also sets this production apart. Making gorilla sounds can be embarrassing, but with a supportive team, actors feel more “comfortable” to walk on stage and nail their parts, he said.

Hooked on Disney from a young age, Murphy said there’s a “formula” the company puts into creating beautiful and “heart-warming” stories. The original soundtrack from the film was written by Phil Collins, lead singer and drummer of the band Genesis, and there’s a number of well known songs such as “You’ll Be In My Heart” that blend rock and roll and classical music together, he added.

“You would think Phil Collins doing a Disney show doesn’t work. But with ‘Tarzan’ and a rock style of music, it works,” Murphy said. “It’s like putting french fries and a Wendy’s frosty together. It’s amazing.”

Doing a musical can be more difficult than a regular play because actors are required to sing, dance and act all at the same time, said sophomore theatre and entertainment arts major Hanna Numinen. Numinen plays the role of Terk, who’s Tarzan’s best friend and has an “eccentric” personality. Singing while hanging upside down was not an easy task but months of training payed off, Numinen added.

Russell required all the cast members to exercise, following a “50/50 challenge” since February. Busting out 50 pushups and 50 situps/squats helped with the “intense choreography,” Numinen said.

Though Numinen said she loves dancing, she’s also looking forward to belting out a jazz scat number called “Trash in the Camp.” Most of the song has little structure and relies on how well an actor can improvise, but having four years of professional vocal lessons has become useful, Numinen said.

The music will make people happy, said Erin Colwitz, musical director and NMU director of choir. African drums beating in the background will give it a “color and timbre,” Colwitz said, adding, the audience will feel like they’re in Africa.

The biggest challenge was putting all the pieces together, from fine-tuning each note to the memorization of their lines, Colwitz said. Though most of the cast learned the music on their own time, Colwitz preps them by reinforcing certain vocal techniques such as breathing.

“It’s amazing to see what they come up with on their own creatively as actors and musicians,” she said. “It’s a heartwarming show. [With] the flight, lights and scenery, it’s very exotic.”


7:30 p.m. Friday, April 13

1 p.m. Saturday, April 14

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 14

7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19

7:30 p.m. Friday, April 20

1 p.m. Saturday, April 21

7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 21

“Disney’s Tarzan: The Musical” will be performed in the Forest Roberts Theatre. Tickets are $5 for NMU students, $10 for other students and $15 for the general public.