- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

NEW YORK

Rika Okamoto and John Elliott Oyzon are clearly having great fun these days.

As characters who look more like smiling cavemen than apes, they fly through the green jungle that has taken over Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, swinging out over audiences packed with gleeful, screaming children. Their playground is the new Disney Theatrical Productions musical “Tarzan.”

The expensive show (reportedly costing between $15 million and $20 million) is based on the 1999 Disney animated film and an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Five years in the making, “Tarzan” moved to Broadway to join fellow Disney productions “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Advance ticket sales are expected to keep “Tarzan” swinging for some time to come, despite mixed reviews from critics knocking its pop-rock songs by Phil Collins and book by David Henry Hwang.

Disney selected director Bob Crowley, best known for his Tony-winning sets for the Lincoln Center Theater revival of “Carousel” and Disney’s “Aida,” to bring the cartoon fantasy to the stage and also to design its sets and costumes. The fancy aerial work was choreographed by Argentine theatrical artist Pichon Baldinu, who helped create the off-Broadway hit “De La Guarda.”

“I earned my wings in ‘De La Guarda,’” says Mr. Oyzon, who also prowls the jungle as a leopard and battles with Tarzan, played by former “American Idol” contestant Josh Strickland — a slim, 22-year-old who looks very different from the 1932 Tarzan portrayed by muscular movie star Johnny Weissmuller.

Both Miss Okamoto and Mr. Oyzon are members of the stage family of gorillas, who seem to swing for the pure pleasure of it. They raise the young Tarzan after his parents die.

Swinging is a high-tech activity, automated by computer. The show uses the Foy system, developed by Peter Foy since the days of “Peter Pan,” to control the ropes and cables that lift most of the cast at one time or another.

No team of stagehands lifts actors into position or pulls them into the air, and Mr. Crowley makes no effort to hide the ropes except in the opening scene — more poetic than scary — when Tarzan’s parents sink underwater.

With from one to eight performers airborne at a time, programming the computer took months. “There are over 300 cues in this show,” said production supervisor Clifford Schwartz, who passes cues to the Foy operator. Mr. Schwartz closely follows the script and score to set cables and ropes into motion and coordinate music with sound and lights.

Motorized winches backstage raise the tension on ropes until performers are in position to “fly.”

The set’s walls are inflated plastic, looking somewhat like a 3-foot-thick air mattress that fits the rectangular shape of the stage setting. They contain niches that serve as perches and landing places for the swingers, who can hide behind the array of vines.

The vines, made from a combination of Lycra strips and nylon climbing rope in various shades of green, line the interior perimeter. Other openings allow lights to shine through so “the set walls act like a giant light box,” Mr. Crowley says. With little space backstage, he brings some scenery and performers up through an opening in the middle.

Knowing the show would be very physical “and therefore dangerous,” Mr. Crowley devised the inflated walls “to create a safe environment for the actors, to free them up to fly.” He also padded the surface of the stage with thick gymnastic mats to cushion potential falls.

“So far, we haven’t had any,” Mr. Crowley said.

Four experienced climbers are on duty backstage for every performance to double-check the connections between the ropes and the performer’s custom harnesses. “I trust my life to them each night,” says Mr. Oyzon, 35.

During an early preview, he recalled, one of the “safety stops” on his rope sensed too much weight when he was lowered as the leopard, and the show stopped briefly while the Foy computer was reset.

Before “Tarzan” reached Broadway, the actors and other performers learned to swing on a replica stage set up at a film studio in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. There they also watched films and videos on apes to study how they move.

“We had a flying school for the dancers,” Mr. Crowley said. “Bit by bit they gained confidence.”

“I never flew before this show,” says the Japanese-born Miss Okamoto, 36, who danced for 10 years with the Martha Graham troupe.

All the harnesses are made of nylon to fit the performer’s body. Some are very small, especially the one worn by Mr. Strickland, who covers it with his loin cloth.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, trouble in the form of white hunters and scientists has come and gone. Tarzan and Jane decide to stay and swing off together while the apes celebrate by bouncing on bungeelike ropes.

If this looks like fun, it is, according to the performers.

“A lot of us aerialists dreamed of flying when we were kids,” says Mr. Oyzon, who calls the show his dream job.

“And I just love to fly,” adds Miss Okamoto.


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