JONATHAN BLAKE FLEMINGS AND ZURI HODGE
Pittsburgh Musical Theater has been known to take risks when it comes to choosing productions to present on stage.
The company has presented “Spring Awakening” and “Hair” in the past.
Now “Tarzan” will be swinging onto the Byham Theater stage as the season-ender of Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s season.
It is based off of the 1999 Disney film of the same name, and features powerful and fun music by musical juggernaut, Phil Collins. The musical began on Broadway in 2006 and opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on May 10 of that year, making it the only Disney theatrical production without any non-New York-based actors trying out for parts.
“Tarzan” closed in July of 2007 after 35 previews and 486 performances. It was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Lighting Design of a Musical and then went on to a widely successful two-year run in the Netherlands from 2007 to 2009.
With a history like that, one would think that actors would shy away from the challenge of the musical.
But that is not the case with Zuri Hodge and Jonathan Blake Flemings, two of the ensemble actors in the Colleen Petrucci directed and choreographed Pittsburgh Musical Theater Professional Company’s production, which runs from May 9-19 at the Byham Theater. Tickets run from $12 to $44.
“The story of Tarzan is so captivating. That a stranger from an outside world would come in and get acclimated with a community of apes is amazing,” said Jonathan Blake Flemings, a Point Park University senior from Los Angeles who portrays the ape, Jasiri in the play.
“I’m glad that the theater is moving to something new with ‘Tarzan,” said Zuri Hodge a senior at Vincentian Academy in the Penn Hills School District. This will be her final production with Pittsburgh Musical Theater. “I’m glad that my final production with them will be Tarzan and that I’m playing an ape.”
To come across as real primates on stage, cast members went to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium to observe the movements and mannerisms of the gorilla.
“They were really energetic and it was fun watching how they react when they hear a noise and how that noise dictates their next move,” Hodge said.
Flemings agreed with his cast mate.
“We’re bringing creatures to life. We’re hunched over a lot. I don’t stand up at all. It’s physically exhausting, but it’s a great show. It’s Disney so it’s not super-deep. It is what it is,” Flemings said. ‘Tarzan’ works because of the story of it, the characters and what they are trying to do. That’s at the heart of the show.”
Pittsburgh Musical Theater was founded in 1990 with the mission of creating a regional theater company committed to quality productions of the best of Pittsburgh’s own professional talent at a price affordable to all residents, especially families and children.
As a non-profit performing arts organization, the mission expanded to include a strong commitment to education, training, and outreach programs through the Richard E. Rauh Conservatory for Musical Theater. General music education and appreciation programs are offered for students ages 4-18. The pre-college program is a highly structured accredited program designed for high school students with serious aspirations for careers in the performing arts.
“As African-Americans there are some shows that we can’t do, but when you really find a show that you can be in, you jump on it,” Flemings said. “Pittsburgh is a very traditional town when it comes to casting, but this is a big deal because it allows you to be in the show and have an opportunity that not a lot of people have.”
Hodge believes the underlying themes of tolerance, love and family will draw in audiences both young and old.
“The kids are going to love the apes and how goofy we are and the parents will relate to the animals and the human characters. The theme of acceptance will touch moms in the audience as well as the relationship between mother and son and dads will resonate with the male ape,” Hodge said. “The show is surprising because it relates to all of us.”
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