‘Tarzan’ singin’ and swingin’ at Children’s Theatre

Tarzan celebrates his 100th anniversary in book form next year, and there is a reason he’s hung around so long: His creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, wanted us to ask ourselves questions about the nature of family, civilization and the white man’s idea of manifest destiny.

Disney boiled the concepts down to the basics in 1999 for an animated movie with a score by Phil Collins. When that story moved to Broadway in 2006, writer David Henry Hwang kept things simple, and that’s the version with which Children’s Theatre of Charlotte has opened its season.

“Tarzan: The Stage Musical” contains the ingenuity and imagination we’ve come to expect at Children’s Theatre. The opening scene, where a wrecked boat breaks apart into components of Ryan Wineinger’s set, establishes the tone: Everything about the jungle can change in an instant, so we have to stay on our toes.

The two leads, Isaac Gay and Polly Hilton, sing splendidly. He’s a nimble Tarzan, she’s a noble Jane, and both project a sense of humor and longing for something they don’t understand.

At the same time, the show runs too long for small children to stay quiet (100 minutes without a break) and offers little thematic or emotional compensation for grown-ups. The target audience should maybe be people who would rather marvel than muse, as the show offers constant visual stimulation.

You know the story, right? A leopard kills the baby of Kala, a gorilla, and then slays shipwrecked Lord Greystoke and his wife. Kala (warm-voiced Tempestt Farrar) adopts their baby, raising it as her own child against the will of wary gorilla leader Kerchak (dignified Chad Calvert).

One day, an expedition lead by botanists Jane Porter and her father (Dan Brunson) arrives. Their villainous guide (Sidney Horton) ostensibly wants to help them locate gorilla families to study but really wants to capture apes for zoos or circuses – or make an even better capture, the ape-man himself.

Hwang takes a few stabs at the “civilized vs. uncivilized” theme, but he mostly spends his time connecting pieces of Collins’ ballad-heavy score. Except for Tarzan, characters stay monochromatic, and one of them – his pal Terk, played with glee by Jordan Ellis – seems like a mere excuse for a bouncy comic number.

There’s a reason this show ran just 15 months on Broadway, never toured and was nominated for only one Tony (for lighting): It’s not taken from Disney’s top drawer.

But Director Michelle Long makes excellent use of all three dimensions: the breadth and depth of the stage, and the air space of McColl Family Theatre.

Apes drop from the sky and skitter up the aisles onto the set. They dismantle Jane’s hoop skirts, turning them into rings from which they can swing. They clamber through the trees or whoosh past on vines, and even baby Tarzan’s parents “swim” toward shore through the air.

Children’s Theatre ensembles often do terrific work. They make a crucial contribution here by crawling, leaping, soaring aloft and doing gymnastic flips. They guarantee that, whatever flat things characters may say, the show stays three-dimensional.