Inside a dance studio at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly last week, a group of actors rehearsed an important dance number in which Tarzan saves Jane from a serpent.
Choreographer Josh Bergasse and Director Bill Castellino started and stopped the proceedings several times, going over changes, exploring ideas, and asking for input from the cast.
"At rehearsal today, we found something new that will have a significant impact on the final production," Castellino said over lunch. "That kind of collaboration is unique."
You could call the entire "Tarzan" production — playing July 12 through 24 at the North Shore Music Theatre — unique. As Castellino describes, "It's not really a world premiere, but it's almost sort of like one."
When Bill Hanney, who bought the music theater in 2010, asked Disney for licensing for the show last year, company executives told him to wait a year. Little did he know they were planning and working out a wholesale revamping of the musical, which debuted on Broadway in May 2006, and ran for a little over a year before closing due to poor ticket sales.
For this version of "Tarzan," Disney has revised the script and some of the instrumentation on the songs written by Grammy Award-winning artist Phil Collins. The idea was to have a sleeker, more focused show that values story and substance over flashy special effects.
Disney wants the new "Tarzan" to have a broader lifespan and to be more "theater friendly" for the tour that will ultimately follow, Hanney said.
"I had no idea at all when we booked it that they wanted to make changes like this," he said, sounding almost giddy to be premiering the revamped musical, which he described as one of his favorites. "We're lucky we got to be the ones to present it, and I think it will be something Disney will be proud of."
'Tarzan' marks ambitious production for music theater
The re-envisioned "Tarzan" is — in terms of manpower, instrumentation, size and logistics — one of the more ambitious productions the North Shore Music Theatre has taken on in recent memory.
In order to fit the whole orchestra, for example, the music pit literally had to be stretched past capacity to accommodate the 14 players, including four percussionists. More than 1,000 people auditioned to fill the 21-person cast, and scores of hopefuls were turned away at an open casting call in New York because there wasn't enough time to see them all.
The creative team, all Broadway veterans, also has had to address numerous logistical hurdles — specifically, that it will be preformed in the round, instead of a traditional setting with a stage up front and the audience all facing the same direction.
Because the stage is front and center, there's nothing to hide behind — Tarzan can't swing from one offstage platform to another. It forced the creative team to be innovative, to use more story, more people and less distracting props. The result is a more artistic experience that immerses the audience, Castellino said. It also presents an amazing opportunity.
"Something like 'My Fair Lady' is tried and true; You're just coloring inside the lines," Castellino said of the recent production at the theater. "For this production, we're drawing the lines ourselves."
"This show changes by the minute," Hanney said. "It will be the most expensive show since I've been here, and I'm told one of the most expensive shows in the history of the theater. But that's what you expect when you do something like this. It's a fortune, but this is something we will remember and something we will be remembered for."
Tarzan meets Jane
The basic plot of the classic tale remains the same: A shipwreck leaves an infant boy orphaned on the shores of West Africa, where he is adopted and raised by a tribe of gorillas. Eventually he encounters his first human — Jane Porter, a curious young explorer — and all of their lives are transformed.
Brian Justin Crum, whose Broadway credits include "Next to Normal," "Grease" and "Wicked," will star as Tarzan. Andrea Goss, who was a member of the final cast of Broadway's "Rent," will play Jane Porter.
Cast members are in tremendous shape, and are expected to hit the gym daily to prepare for the physically-demanding show. Would you expect anything less from "Tarzan" than vine swinging, climbing and jumping?
"You can't do 'Tarzan' without a vine or two. You can tell that by the rope burns on the cast," said Bergasse, who is also the choreographer on an upcoming network television show called "Smash," produced by Steven Spielberg. "I don't think there are any (physical) limits" on how demanding the show can be.
"When you get your ticket ripped, you are now in the jungles of Africa," said Hanney, adding that even the people taking your ticket will be part of the set. The actors "will literally be over your head, swinging and hanging. It's going to be really a fun two hours."
Castellino, Bergasse, the theater's artistic director Arianna Knapp, along with the set designer, costume designer, and the rest of the principals, met for the first time in May to go over many of the creative elements. Full-on rehearsals with the cast began only a couple of weeks ago. Time is short and the margin for error even shorter — especially when you consider the scope of the undertaking.
But there are no nerves, only excitement at the prospect of performing a live action premiere in front of 1,500 people who have no idea what's going to happen next.
"Being ambitious is never a bad thing," Castellino said. "We're all of the mindset, 'Let's just go for it.' There's no reason not to. We want to make this the most interesting and beautiful rendition of 'Tarzan' anyone has ever seen."
If you go
What: Disney's "Tarzan" world premiere
Where: North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road, Beverly
When: July 12 to 24, Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
How: Tickets are $35 to $65. Kids 12 and under save 50 percent at all evening performances. For tickets and information call 978-232-7200, visit www.nsmt.org, or visit the box office.
Post-show audience discussions with the artists, 7:30 p.m. show
OUT at the North Shore, an evening for the gay and lesbian community with a post-show reception, after the 7:30 p.m. performance
Post-show audience discussions with the artists, 2 p.m. show