Sixteen months after The Goodman Theatre announced artistic associate Mary Zimmerman would helm a stage adaptation of "The Jungle Book," the highly anticipated production has arrived.
It was worth the wait.
Gorgeous to look at, with an ebullient cast and an irresistible score, "The Jungle Book" -- adapted from Rudyard Kipling's 19th- century stories and Disney's animated 1967 film -- is the next glittering jewel in Goodman's crown.
Director-adapter Zimmerman masterfully blends poetry and spectacle in this enchanting, accessible, astutely framed production.
It begins in a child's bedroom where a young boy settles into a wingback chair with a large book. The door opens and light spills into the room. In steps a peacock (Nikka Graff Lanzarone). Dressed in proper Victorian attire, she leads the youngster into Kipling's tale as the set transforms into a sumptuous jungle paradise represented by enormous, movable screens covered in giant flowers and birds. Shades of saffron and green dominate the vibrant palette of Daniel Ostling's beautifully designed set, whose towering elephant cutouts and beaming sun -- the smiling face of an Indian man set against the Viceroy of India crest -- fittingly recall illustrations from a children's book.
The action centers on the adventures of Mowgli (Akash Chopra, cute-as-a-button and completely natural), the orphaned "man cub" adopted as an infant by a pack of wolves. Ten years later, Mowgli's mentor -- the principled panther Bagheera (a dignified, compassionate Usman Ally) -- decides the reluctant child must return to his village.
Along the way they encounter a herd of elephants sporting uniforms and pith helmets (a nod to the British Raj), led by the slightly dotty Colonel Hathi (a very funny Ed Kross). Next they meet the affable bear Baloo (an endearing Kevin Carolan), a fatherly sort who is a warm and playful counterpart to the cool, serious Bagheera.
Also on hand is the swinging King Louie, splendidly played by Andre De Shields, who stops the show with his irrepressible performance of "I Wanna Be Like You," the breathlessly entertaining Act One finale. The rollicking Dixieland tune showcases Christopher Gattelli's exuberant choreography, which combines tap, Lindy Hop and Indian classical dance into a seamless, unforgettable whole. Watching it, I couldn't help wondering: How will Zimmerman and company top this? The fact is, they don't. There is no second act counterpart, unless you count the finale, "Jungle Rhythm" (from "Jungle Book 2"), which ends this show on a high note.
Waiting in the wings to wreck havoc in the second act is the deadly tiger Shere Khan (the ever watchable Larry Yando, woefully underused) and the snake Kaa, played with benign menace by Thomas Derrah.
Zimmerman and her enormously talented team -- including the ingenious Mara Blumenfeld, whose beautiful, imaginative costumes humanize Kipling's jungle residents -- deserve the kudos they'll likely receive for this truly delightful show. But much of the credit for its success belongs to Doug Peck, the accomplished music director. His stellar arrangements synthesizing the original jazz- infused score by Richard and Robert Sherman with Indian music is one of the supreme joys of "The Jungle Book."
That said, the show isn't perfect. At least, not yet. The narrative has some weak spots (nothing supports Shere Khan's conversion) and it fails to establish a sustained emotional connection with the audience. As for the colonialism that infused Kipling's stories, the exploitation by westerners of indigenous people and their culture, Zimmerman addresses it only obliquely, in the form of a brief yet poignant speech by Geoff Packard's Lieutenant George, a young elephant who reminds the herd (read Brits) of a shared humanity.
Those who would like to see a more pointed condemnation won't find it here. Perhaps one day some other auteur will take on the challenge of addressing the social and political underpinnings of Kipling's works.
This is Zimmerman's interpretation. And it's a mighty fine one, which is assured a second production in September when it transfers to Boston's Huntington Theatre, which co-produced the show with Goodman through an arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions. It remains to be seen if "The Jungle Book" will live on beyond Boston.
It should. Like a well-told tale, this show is worth revisiting.
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