Kirsten Sindelar and Tommy Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt in Tarzan: The Musical

Care to enjoy some frolicking, singing gorillas (and people) without leaving the QC? I suggest visiting the Spotlight Theatre for Tarzan: The Musical, an adaptation of the 1999 Disney animated film. Director Brent Tubbs and music director Christine Rogers have pulled together an amazing group for an absorbing, lively production that the kids will like, too – despite, and maybe because of, a bit of violence and a couple of non-gory deaths.

The 2006 musical's book is by David Henry Hwang, and it includes 15 songs by Phil Collins, 10 of which he wrote for this stage show. Collins dominated the singles charts in the 1980s, and these tunes are predictably appealing. "You'll Be in My Heart," which originated as a lullaby Collins wrote for his daughter, won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Having not read Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes, nor seen this musical, the movie, nor any of the other 60-plus iterations of the famed vine-swinging wild child's mythos, my knowledge consisted mostly of parodies and imitations: Jay Ward Productions' 1967 George of the Jungle cartoons; Ray Stevens' 1969 ditty "Gitarzan”; Carol Burnett's uncannily perfect, Johnny Weissmuller-style Tarzan call. Anyway, I'd never mused about the dramatic possibilities of a baby being raised by gorillas until I saw this production on Saturday.

Walking in, I entered a darkened, green-lit jungle, with twittering birds, occasional drums, and a green canopy draped high overhead; a large platform dressed with tree trunks, moss, and leaves; and a very subtle breath of theatrical fog. Plus a few vines, which later serve the function you'd expect. Director Tubbs has put together yet another spectacular set.

Joel Vanderbush and Sara Tubbs in Tarzan: The Musical

Tarzan is not a Disney Princess, but a Disney Orphan, complete with abuse from the apes with whom he lives, an identity crisis, and longing for people like himself. Young Tarzan is enacted by Marlo Reed, who expertly portrayed vulnerability and bravado, and has a fine, clear singing voice. Tarzan's adoptive mother Kala, played with protective sweetness – and fire – by Spotlight co-owner Sara Tubbs, is on his side, as is his friend Terk. Dalton Carls plays Tarzan's young ally with great enthusiasm, and Jorge Mendez crushes it as the adult Terk with an irresistibly comedic demeanor and a knock-you-flat voice. Another castmate with a killer voice, and acting and presence to match, is Joel Vanderbush, who plays Kala's mate and tribe patriarch Kerchak, a powerful silverback who justifiably despises humans. Vanderbush is curator of conservation and education for Niabi Zoo, so he promotes primates in the real world, too.

Tommy Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt plays the adult Tarzan with the emotional depth and savvy I knew he'd bring to the role. Tarzan is not of human society, but he's not a dolt. As his character learns English, Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt humorously imitates precisely the sound, inflection, and tone of the speaker. And physically? Wow. Like all the stage-apes (and real ones), the actor executes staggeringly nimble leaping, simian knuckle-walking, and sidelong running. At one point, he sprang from a standing position onto a small platform about two-and-a-half-feet high. And folks – he jumped sideways.

He's yet another actor with a stunning voice, and I'm gratified that he sang mostly straight tone with minimal vibrato. In truth, all the singers here provide wonderful sound, with vocal styles driven by character instead of grandstanding, but very strong technique. For example, during the percussive Act II opener (befitting drummer/composer Collins), Mendez treats us to skillful and more pleasing scat than found in any jungle. At the end of one duet, Tarzan and Jane astounded me with their long-held tandem last notes.

Maesi Geigle, Tommy Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt, Jackson Grubbs, Bruce Duling, and Kirsten Sindelar in Tarzan: The Musical

Speaking of Jane, the versatile and engaging Kirsten Sindelar plays the bright-eyed, enthusiastic botanist, who enters the tribe's domain with her unnamed assistant (Grace Wiborg, who executes amazing physical comedy – she doesn't need words to be hysterical); her father, the slightly befuddled Professor Porter (veteran performer Bruce Duling); Professor Clayton (Jackson Grubbs, a first-time actor with impressive natural talent); and Clayton's sidekick Snipes (Maesi Geigle, droll but not overplaying it). Geigle also portrays one of the dancing Flora Fauna, personifying the plants with which Jane is so enamored. The rest of the greenery is performed by Brittney Anderson, Madison Duling, Natalynn Kabel, and Olivia Hoft. They do double-duty as crew members, too, with Kabel also puppeteering a full-size, menacing leopard created by Sara Wegener. All the animals were by Wegener, including the clever, slightly whimsical ape costumes, while Heather Blair clothed the humans. Credit goes to Blair and Wegener for all the hair and makeup – and cheers to those responsible for Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt's great-looking wig of long dreadlocks, which stayed on through all the frantic action.

Last, but by no definition least, are the athletic ape tribe: Addie Jorgensen, Addison Kopp, Breileigh Moran, Casey Bergthold, Cooper Tubbs, Noa Hewlett, Owen Steen, Robert Kennedy, and Valerie Moore. They lope, gambol, hoot softly … and in this show, if the apes aren't good, the production falls apart. And these good apes execute choreographer Kylie Wise's steps with ease. The 11-piece orchestra, meanwhile, sounds wholly professional, as is usual for the Spotlight. In short, there's no bungle in this jungle. Go to Moline and go green. See Tarzan.


Tarzan: The Musical runs at the Spotlight Theatre (1800 Seventh Avenue, Moline IL) through June 16, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)912-7647 and visiting

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