WALNUT CREEK -- When the curtain goes up Oct. 11, a 101-year-old character will swing, minimally clad, perhaps upside down and boldly belting out Phil Collins tunes, through a jungle in the Hofmann Theatre at the Lesher Center for the Arts.
It will be Tarzan -- OK, it will be Broadway actor James Royce Edwards in Contra Costa Musical Theatre's full-scale production of "Tarzan."
Based on the classic story of an orphan boy raised by gorillas, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 and stepping forward from the Academy Award-winning Disney film from 1999, a tribe of players are shepherding the show into the 21st century.
"Our show doesn't differ much from the film," Director Jasen Jeffrey says, during a post-rehearsal interview. "But our opening is accelerated -- I won't ruin the surprise by saying how -- to get to the story."
The "story," he insists, can't be boiled down into a simplistic "savage meets civilized" synopsis. Instead, he suggests the Tarzan tale is like a vine, its tendrils reaching to delicious, father-daughter/mother-son relationships and to sturdy, complex themes relating to human-animal connections. In light of increased awareness about gorillas, Jeffrey attributes to research from anthropologist Jane Goodall and films like "Gorillas in the Mist," he's applying modern day sensibility to the production.
"I'm pinpointing the idea of humans being more savage than the gorillas," he says.
And while Jeffrey prods the inner heart of characters like the controversial Clayton, a weapon-wielding dolt, and Jane, a non-swooning, intelligent woman in CCMT's rendition, choreographer Nicole Helfer is all about boot camp.
"I was so sore!" she exclaims. "The choreography comes from my background in (Katherine) Dunham's technique, which is based in African movement."
The pelvic undulations, torso isolations, intentional falls and especially, the parallel "get-ready" squat were tough on actors accustomed to musical theater's upright patterns. Hunkering down like a gorilla to cross the 30-foot-plus stage or swinging through the set's aerial apparatus explains the ice packs, pro wristwraps and rock rosin on a nearby table. "They're getting used to it," Helfer says, proudly.
Music director Matt Smart has been lecturing the actors about cardio. "Son of Man," a song requiring vocal finesse just as the actors reach an anaerobic wall, is "spectacular," but intensely difficult. And "Trashin' the Camp," Smart's favorite, demands the singers be an explosive, fourth drummer. "There's three drummers in the pit, but it's high-energy scatting -- rock with accents," Smart says.
On top of acting, singing and barreling like apes in perfect unison while wearing enormous head pieces on loan from costumer US Regional Premiere, Kentucky-based ZFX Flying Effects is adding a vertical challenge.
"They had a terrific, affordable Tarzan package," Jeffrey says. "Vines and equipment and best of all, they had a flight director who used to work here and knows the Lesher."
Jeffrey is euphoric about the connection, but cautious about overusing the fly system. Gorillas weigh 400 pounds, and making them fly -- which he says some productions have done -- would be a gimmick. Instead, he only uses the fly system for safety (supporting actors as they traverse vines and scenic designer Kelly J. Tighe's central tree platforms) and for enhanced storytelling.
"The first time Tarzan swings vine-to-vine, easily keeping up with the gorillas, we have to see his superhero agility, so we use it there," Jeffrey explains. "I go 30 feet in the air to look down at a waterfall and I have characters get stuck in a spider web: I couldn't create that drama without the flying effects."
Like a canopy arcing over the entire production, collaboration is key. Musical theater relies on team work; no one person could master the multiple vocal, movement and theatrical components. Helfner says her experience working on Tarzan has been magical. Smart appreciates the flow of the threesome's being "almost always on the same page." And Jeffrey, even without a fly system, is "on top of the world" when communication is strong. It's cliché, but it's a family -- looping nicely with the central attraction of the Tarzan story.
"Your family isn't always biological," Helfer says. "Home is where you belong and fit in."
"Tarzan's an exotic love story, but if you dig deeper, it's about family," Smart agrees.
Jeffrey, still insisting there is no "one thing" to Tarzan's enduring legacy, says the story is favored because it's about a boy who chooses to go back to his family -- the gentle giants whose social interactions are far less brutal than the aggressive dissonances found in the human world.