The Jungle Book
Now extended through August 18!
A bewitching night of theater
|Goodman Theatre presents|
|The Jungle Book|
Review by John Olson
When this project was announced, it had all the signs of being an attempt to repeat the success of The Lion King. Disney hires a successful director from the non-profit world to adapt one of its successful animated movie musicals for the screen, and a story set in the wild at that. That’s about where the similarities end. Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Jungle Book, for better and worse, is no rip-off of The Lion King. It’s not the spectacle that was the earlier show but a much quieter, gentler piece. There’s some puppetry, but just a bit. Apart from some animal suggestive headwear and a few clever costume pieces, the actors are otherwise dressed in the garb of either native Indians or British colonists. Zimmerman relies on the actors to convince us they’re animals. And, there’s way less use of the ensemble, with much of the action consisting of two or three character scenes.
Zimmerman starts out quietly, showing the jungle boy Mowgli in a western-style bedroom. A woman on stilts carries him into his memory, apparently, as the walls of this tiny room vanish to reveal the jungle. The ensemble has a rhythmically spoken opening number where the circumstances that led Mowgli to be raised by wolves in the Indian jungle are revealed. His parents have already been killed by the tiger Shere Kahn (we’re spared seeing that horrific experience) and the wolf pack debates whether or not to keep and protect this “man-cub” from the tiger who wants to complete his meal of the boy’s family. There are some quiet scenes that follow, as the panther Bagheera (a kind and sensitive Usman Ally) convinces first the pack leader Akela (Andrè De Shields) to allow the infant (played by a puppet) to stay, and then takes him to the care of the Bagheera’s mate, Raksha. Raksha sings the infant a lovely lullaby (one of several songs added to the score to supplement those from the 1967 film), beautifully performed by Anjali Bhimani. There’s another ensemble number showing the passage of ten years, when it is no longer safe for the pre-teen Mowgli (the spunky and thoroughly professional Akash Chopra) to stay in the jungle, as the wolves are certain Shere Khan will return to kill the boy and probably slay many of the wolves as well. Bagheera sets out with Mowgli on a journey to return Mowgli to the “man-village.”
From here, the action is episodic as Bagheera and Mowgli find new friends and enemies on their path. First is the herd of elephants played by actors in elephant ears and military uniforms. After they perform “Col. Hathi’s March” in a reserved, typically British manner, we meet Baloo the Bear. Broadway’s Kevin Carolan, made to look rotund and bear-like by a series of hoops suspended around his body, gives a sweetly comic performance as the kind but bumbling bear who joins Bagheera as Mowgli’s protector. When Carolan launches into “The Bare Necessities,” the Oscar-nominated hit from the original movie, we finally get some of traditionally Broadway energy and pizzaz we expect from a Disney musical. The energy and intensity builds after Mowgli is kidnapped by a pack of monkeys led by King Louie (De Shields, in a dual role), who with the ensemble costumed in tails and monkey ears provides a rousing first act finale with the song “I Wanna Be Like You.” Christopher Gattelli’s choreography here is inspired, giving the number a sense of animalistic chaos that brings us into their world. The monkeys are back to open the second act with an impressive tap number. This act includes another encounter with the python Kaa (slimily played by Thomas Derrah and puppeteers who bring sections of the snake’s body in and out of trap doors on the stage), the appearance of vultures singing “That’s What Friends Are For” and a final showdown with Shere Kahn. The tiger is played by Chicago’s Larry Yando with devilish delight – the only trouble is we don’t get enough of him. Mowgli is eventually returned, quietly, to the “man-village,” and the story ends as quietly as it began, back in the bedroom. The full ensemble comes back for a finale/curtain call to end the proceedings on an energetic note (Billy Elliot the Musical used the same sort of solution to a quiet finish).
Like The Lion King, this production incorporates the regional musical sounds of the setting. Music Director Doug Peck has orchestrated the numbers for a combination of Indian and western instruments in an attempt to meld the Dixieland sound of the original movie score by Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman (which also included Terry Gilkyson’s “Bare Necessities”). I’m not sure the two sounds blend much better than oil and water, but I don’t really get why a Dixieland and big band sound was used for the film in the first place. That score has been augmented by other songs written by the Shermans together, by Richard M. Sherman alone (Robert died last year), and with new material by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowsky.
If not a jaw-dropping visual spectacle on the order of The Lion King, The Jungle Book is a handsome production and a much classier looking affair than Tarzan, Disney’s last stage foray into the jungle. Daniel Ostlings sets make use of sliding flats to represent the vegetation while Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes elegantly portray the human styles of 19th-century Indians and Brits. T.J. Gerckens’ lighting design assists handily in the storytelling as well. We also see such Zimmerman-esque touches as using shiny blue paper to represent water.
Jungle Book is a lovely piece and a solid retelling of the Kipling stories. Zimmerman’s adaptation is easy to follow, and with the help of sound designers Ray Nardelli, Joshua Horvath and André J. Pluess, easy to hear and understand. It’s artistic enough for adults and ought to be comprehensible and entertaining for kids.
Although it’s a perfectly worthy piece for a non-profit like the Goodman, it might not be as satisfying on a Broadway stage at Broadway prices (and in fairness to Disney, they’ve not announced any such intentions). The fact that it lacks the scope or awe-inspiring effects of Disney’s Lion King or Mary Poppins is only part of the reason why. There’s a belief among producers and writers of Broadway musicals that these shows usually need stories in which a central figure has a great desire or quest which must be fulfilled. Dramatic tension is built around the obstacles in the way of the character achieving their goal. In The Jungle Book, Bagheera is the one on the quest – to return Mowgli to humanity – but Mowgli doesn’t want to go there. We can’t really get fully invested in this tale and hence there’s not the sort of catharsis at its conclusion that we normally expect from a Broadway musical. If Disney’s intention is to have a piece that can tour cheaply or be a hit for regional companies and nonprofessional groups, they have a good property all ready to go. If they’re looking for a show to fill Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre and pry $600 or more from a family’s pocket, they’ll have to up their game.
The Jungle Book continues through
August 11th August 18th at the Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays at 2pm and 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $30-$125, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at GoodmanTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
André De Shields (Akela and King Louie), Usman Ally (Bagheera), Larry Yando (Shere Khan), Kevin Carolan (Baloo), Akash Chopka (Mowgli), Thomas Derrah (Kaa and Others), Ed Kross (Colonel Hathi and Others), Geoff Packard (Lieutenant George, Giddha and Others), Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Peacock and others), Alka Nayyar (Doe, Insect and Others), Timothy Wilson (Wolf and Others), Victor Wisehart (Wolf and Others), Govind Kumar (Wolf, Vulture and Others), Nehal Joshi (Rama and Others), Anjali Bhimani (Raksha and Others), Monique Haley (Insect and Others), Jeremy Duvall (Insect and Others) , Glory Curda (Little Girl), Roni Akurati (Mowgli Alternate).
Doug Peck (conductor, piano, harmonium), Neel Murgai (sitar, daff, overtone vocal), Saraswathi Ranganathan (veena), Anuradha Sridhar (carnatic violin), Victor Garcia (trumpet, snake trumpet, flugelhorn), Steven Duncan (trombone, tuba, snake trumpet), Nick Moran (reeds 1), Juli Wood (reeds 2), Shivalik Ghoshal (tablas, dholak), Ronnie Malley (ghattam, dholak, dhol, dumbek, percussion, oud), Sarah Allen (drums), Larry Kohut (bass), Heather Boehm (orchestra contractor).
behind the scenes
Mary Zimmerman (director), Christopher Gattelli (choreography), Doug Peck (music director, music orchestrations, supervision, adaptation and arrangements), Daniel Ostling (scenic design), Mara Blumenfeld (costume design), T.J. Gerkens (lighting design), Ray Nardelli, Andre Pluess and Joshua Horvath (sound design), Alden Vasquez (production stage manager), Jamie Wolfe (stage manager), Hema Rajagopalan (Indian dance consultant), Adam Belcuore (casting), Liz Lauren (photos).
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