Dallas actor Esteban Vilchez was one of those kids. He grew up watching the 1999 musical adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, and now he has the rare chance to be Tarzan himself in Lyric Stage's production of the Disney stage musical, which opens Wednesday night at The Majestic.
"The movie's been in my life for my whole life," Vilchez says. "My family was always big on Disney and we watched a lot of those movies growing up, and Tarzan was one I really loved as a kid. It's a really cool one. I never thought I'd be playing the character itself."
The past couple of years have been busy for Vilchez. He had roles in productions all over the Dallas, including The Firehouse Theater's stage musical of Tim Burton's Big Fish and the Dallas Theater Center's annual adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Even so, snagging the lead role in Tarzan is a huge step up on his acting résumé.
"I went in there not expecting anything," Vilchez says. "Then they called me back for Tarzan and a couple of other characters. I wasn't expecting anything. I certainly wanted it, but it was a surprise for sure."
Disney's stage adaptation of Tarzan requires strong vocal cords, and it's a highly physical role — from the look to the high-flying choreography and stage effects. Vilchez says he had to combine his workouts with musical rehearsals.
"We gotta be on that treadmill and singing that song," Vilchez says. "It's a technique we use a lot so we can build the stamina, but also singing it while we're doing other stuff. It's the most physically demanding role we've ever done."
Vilchez says he had to cram a lot of workouts into a short window of rehearsal time to play the King of the Apes, and the physical preparations weren't just for swinging from vines. A lot of physical scenes deliver laughs that require some precise movements.
"There's a lot of physical movement, but there's also a lot of comedy and timing involved with the comedy," Vilchez says. "We'd go through the show picking out things. It's understanding and laying out the mapwork and then going through the story and mapping things out so it makes sense. [Director Brandon Mason] was able to lay a foundation quickly and then from there create a space where we could really experiment."
"My family was always big on Disney and we watched a lot of those movies growing up, and Tarzan was one I really loved as a kid. It's a really cool one. I never thought I'd be playing the character itself." – Esteban Vilcheztweet this
Lyric Stage's Tarzan has a lot of aerial stunts. Vilchez says he relished the challenge of working with the crew and his fellow cast members to create big, eye-popping swing stunts in the confines of The Majestic's main stage, and the stunts aren't limited to his role.
"The performer who plays Cheetah is an amazing singer and aerialist and does all kinds of cool stunts," Vilchez says. "It's really awesome, some of the stuff she does, and she's only 16."
The musical version of Disney's Tarzan is, of course, driven by the music, including the film's Oscar-winning song "You'll Be in My Heart," originally sung by Phil Collins. These songs may be in the background in the movie, but they play a huge role. Vilchez says he didn't realize how much the music contributed to the comedy, drama and story until he saw and started working on the musical version.
"These songs are typically sung in the background," Vilchez says. "We're singing it so it brings its own little thing. It adds a different kind of energy to the piece."
Vilchez says that one of the most important facets of his performance is that he's a minority, which especially matters for young, impressionable audiences.
"It's a really cool, amazing thing to be able to represent a character that's not traditionally portrayed by a person of my background," he says. "We are able to really influence the next generation of performers, and when a person of my background is playing the titular character in a space like this with a professional company as renowned as Lyric Stage, it shows kids they can make it to this point. I never thought I would. I hope it inspires the next generation. That's really important to me."