Shakespeare amid the vines of 'Tarzan'

The 'Tom Cruise of the stage' brings some educated thought to the Disney musical

Anybody who saw Jimmy Mason in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at Palo Alto Players in 2016 or as the rock star turned washed-up fugitive in "Rock of Ages" in May, also at the Players, knows that he is exactly the rich slice of beefcake needed to star in the title role of the stage musical "Tarzan."

In "Vanya," Mason, who swims every day at Stanford University when he's staying at his parents' house in Palo Alto, spent most of his time in his underwear, shouting "Whoo!" and running around. But then, in Act II, he had a transition to sincerity that made the role more than mere stud muffin.

Mason might take on these at-first-glance shallow roles but at heart and by practice he is actually a very good actor, one who works constantly to develop his craft. Good enough, in fact, that his first appearance in "Vanya" was in Pennsylvania, sharing the stage with the playwright, Christopher Durang.

"Jimmy Mason is completely unique as Tarzan," said Palo Alto Players Artistic Director Patrick Klein, who is directing the show (based on the story "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the 1999 animated adaptation). "He brings a certain physicality to it, into the character and background of Tarzan. We've been having introspective, deep conversations about how to create Tarzan, staying true to the story and to Disney," (which owns the show).

"He wants to climb all over the set, he wants to jump from high places. He's the Tom Cruise of stage actors. We're trying to protect him. We don't want a Tarzan with a broken leg."

Mason, who now lives in New York, between his jogging grounds in Central Park and the auditioning offices of Times Square, grew up in Palo Alto, and attended St. Joseph's High, part of Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton.

During his freshman year, his English teacher was Mary Manion FitzSimons, who had all her students, including Mason, perform Shakespeare monologues. She introduced him to the school's drama teacher, John Loschmann.

"I got into swimming and theater over there," Mason said during a recent interview. "I did a play between swim and water polo seasons, and immediately knew, 'This is what I want to do.'"

The first show he did in high school was about 9/11, a play combining monologues written by students, recalling the nightmare of the twin towers.

"I would recommend theater to anybody," said Mason. "I'm still close with all those people. The staff there was so instrumental in shaping my future. John would pick plays that helped me work on my musical side. He did 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.' It was great, stepping in for me to try a musical for me to be a lead. He slowly ramped up the amount of work, the challenges I would have to take on. He's been such a believer in my talent. To have somebody like that was so wonderful."

Mason went on to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, which he likened to a military school.

"Just the intensity of it. Acting movement, speech, voice -- then you have these classes on the foundations of drama. You have to read like three plays a week and discuss them in class. ... It allows you, when you take on any part -- 'Tarzan' or just a straight play or a musical -- to kind of humanize those works ... you have to be expressing the emotional, and not get bogged down in the intellectual."

Carnegie Mellon, he said, gave him tools he uses in his craft.

"It helps me so much, the experience of just reading those plays," he said, drawing comparison between lines in "Tarzan" ("Two worlds, one family") to the opening line of "Romeo and Juliet" ("Two households, both alike in dignity").

"I have this theory that so many of the scenes are inspired from Shakespeare scenes. And you have the ape family, the human family and two people who come together from the two families," he said.

In talks with Klein, Mason has emphasized that sometimes Tarzan has to lose, to emphasize his human frailness relative to his jungle environment.

"What if we see Tarzan fighting a leopard? Obviously, the leopard will win, nine times out of ten. What if when I am swinging away, what if you seen him falling, or getting pulled off the vine?" he said.

In other Tarzan stories, Mason explained, "It's like he snaps his fingers and flies. But if we magnify Tarzan's failure, that will highlight the emotional side," he said. "He knows he's not like the other apes -- that has to be a big question in his mind. He has to be so lost, so different from both the animals, but also from the humans."

Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

What: "Tarzan"

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

When: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 8 at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., 2 p.m. Sundays; Sept. 7 through Sept. 23, 2018.

Cost: $25-$55.

Info: Call 650-329-0891 or go to PA Players.

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