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Audiences in for a wild time with Alluvion's 'Tarzan'

April 10, 2013 : By Drew Menard/Liberty University News Service

People of all ages are invited on a magical journey to a jungle of pop-singing apes as Alluvion Stage Company, in conjunction with the Liberty University Department of Theatre Arts, presents “Tarzan” for the first time in Central Virginia.

“Tarzan” swings to the stage of Tower Theater Friday and runs through May 12, making it Liberty’s first show to feature performances over Commencement weekend.

The musical is sure to take Alluvion, the professional branch of Liberty’s theater program, to new heights as the much-anticipated follow-up to its popular inaugural show, “Peter Pan.”

"Tarzan" show times

April 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, 27; May 3*, 4, 11 - 7:30 p.m.

April 13, 20; May 4 - 2 p.m.

April 14, 28; May 12 - 3 p.m.

April 16, 29 - 10 a.m. (Open to school groups only)

* Indicates a Talkback performance (an open Q&A with the director, designers and selected actors after the show). 

Written by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang and featuring a score by Grammy Award-winning artist Phil Collins, “Tarzan” is a hybrid of both classic literature and a Disney film. Though it resembles the animated movie, it is more true to Edgar Rice Burrough’s original tales.

Linda Nell Cooper, theater department chair and the show’s director, said “Tarzan” will bring stunts to the stage never before seen in the area. The play was chosen in part for its level of difficulty to produce and because Liberty’s stage is the only one in the region capable of doing it.

“I love to take things that other people find almost impossible to direct … I like to take that as a challenge and find ways to make it possible and make it very stage-worthy and find beauty in it,” Cooper said.

As a professional company housed within a university, Alluvion presents a great opportunity for students and alumni to collaborate as well as work with outside professionals. This is an opportunity not often found at other Christian colleges. For its unique aerial stunts, Liberty has contracted ZFX Flying Effects.

Natalie Cleek, a junior portraying “Jane,” said she enjoys the opportunity to interact with graduates who are now working actors.

Liberty senior Jeff Sundheim (right) portrays the title character "Tarzan," and junior Natalie Cleek plays "Jane."

“It is a beautiful opportunity to get to learn from them and ask questions like, ‘How do you do your résumé,’ ‘How do you do your headshots,’ ‘What are these (professional theater) companies like?’” she said. “It is great to get that wealth of information while you are doing the thing that you love.”

One of those alumni is Cody Carwile (’11), who plays the villain “Clayton.” Carwile has had a number of professional contracts since graduation and is excited for a “homecoming” performance at Liberty.

“There are not many theater programs that get this, a professional theater company built into a college,” he said. “In the professional world that is a huge deal because kids are leaving here with a professional credit under their belt.”

“Tarzan” has a cast of 36 and a crew of 21 behind the scenes. The cast features eight children from local elementary and high schools, providing a diverse dynamic on and off the stage.

“It is so encouraging to see the camaraderie between the kids, the students, and the alumni,” said Kaitlin Patterson (’12), stage manager. “They are like a big family — sharing stories, dancing together … even with the age differences it was an instant clique.”

“Tarzan” is rather unique to Liberty because it features pop music and contemporary dance rather than the classical fare more common in its shows.

“Audience members will hear voices completely different from what they have heard in the past and will be pleasantly surprised,” Cooper said.

This has been a challenge for many of the actors, but one they have welcomed and used to develop as artists.

Jeff Sundheim, a senior portraying Tarzan, said the role has required him — in addition to overcoming his fear of heights — to develop a new level of physical and vocal stamina. He joked that it felt like the score was written “to ruin voices.”

“It’s worth it when you get it, but at the same time you want to make sure you are doing it correctly instead of just blowing your voice out,” he said.

The layered set has been another challenge for the actors, requiring them to adapt from the rehearsal room to the stage, Patterson explained.

“You have to prepare the actors in their exercises and workouts, knowing it is not a flat stage and your momentum is going to be different,” she said.

Senior Taamu Wuya (left) plays "Kerchak" and junior Kelli Overmyer portrays "Kala." Both characters are members of the ape tribe.

The vast majority (31 of 36) of the characters are apes. Animals have been portrayed on stage at Liberty before, but have not been such a large element of the story. Though challenging, this makes the show all the more magical when everything comes together, Cooper said.

“It is so rewarding to see our students tackle roles such as the apes with such abandon, with no hesitation. From day one they decided they were going to commit and to become these animals.”

“They really are a family up there,” Cleek said of the bond between the ape tribe members. “As a human on stage you feel like you really are invading that.”

Though heavy on fun and excitement, “Tarzan” also teaches an important lesson about family and responsibility.

“The story is really about the families that you choose to be your family and that love does not diminish because of that,” Cooper said. “It is really heartwarming to see a family loving each other and celebrating each other’s lives no matter how different they are.”

Sundheim said that with graduation on the horizon the role of Tarzan has taught him a lot about making big decisions. In the play, Tarzan is forced to make a major decision about what he will do with his life.

“You have to know that just like with salvation you can’t live in both worlds. You have to know that there is going to be a price for whatever decision you make. It is up to you, but you have to make one of them. … You have to make choices in life that may not be what you want to do but you know are best for your family or the people you love because you are responsible for them. And in the end it is going to be OK.”

  • To purchase tickets, visit the Tower Theater website or call the Liberty University Box Office at (434) 582-SEAT (7328) during weekday business hours. On the night of a performance, call the Tower Box Office at (434) 582-2085.