Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Aug. 18
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Centering a whole show around a child can be a recipe for disaster, especially if it’s a coming-of-age story requiring the kid to grow and develop emotionally. But when you’re adapting the beloved 1967 Disney animated film “The Jungle Book” for the stage, you don’t have much of a choice.
That was one of the dilemmas facing Mary Zimmerman, whose world premiere at Goodman Theatre, created at the behest of the Disney Theatrical Group, also draws on the stories in Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous 1894 book. Another challenge was how human-like to make the animals the “man cub” Mowli lives among, and indeed, how to present their jungle world. A third: incorporating the movie’s swing, jazz, blues, barbershop quartet and other music by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman — plus, of course, Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” – while infusing the songs with an Indian feel in sync with the setting.
Zimmerman and her collaborators masterfully resolve all the issues except the first. Thanks to her splendid design team, the jungle is a wondrous place teeming with color and life, in contrast to the dark Victorian room of the opening scene where a lonely boy loses himself in an oversize tome. Daniel Ostling’s scenic design features sliding panels on several planes and a floral motif, simultaneously suggesting exotic India and a storybook with the infinite shadings of T.J. Gerckens’ lighting.
Mara Blumenfeld’s sumptuous yet witty costumes cleverly combine traditional garb, both Indian and British, with canny suggestions of the creatures the actors are playing, frequently in the form of tails and fur accents. Rather than relying on sophisticated puppetry like in “The Lion King,” Zimmerman offers a slightly homespun fusion of human and animal that works beautifully. The herd of elephants, mimicking a proper British regiment except for their flapping ears and rope tails, is hilarious. The loyal, lackadaisical bear Baloo (Kevin Carolan) wears a brown turban with a hint of ears and a hooped frame that resembles the beehive he sometimes carries with him. Turbans with ears also help distinguish Bagheera (the terrific Usman Ally), the panther resplendent in black who is the tale’s moral touchstone, and Shere Khan (Larry Yando), the vengeful tiger in orange and gold stripes who embraces his end with dignity and the admission that he never wanted to do evil (though the deus ex machina is confusing to those of us who know little about Indian gods and goddesses). Only the snake, Kaa (Thomas Derrah), has a puppet-ish body, but it’s a shimmering delight almost with a will of its own.
The most amazing accomplishment musically is the ability of adaptor-arranger-orchestrator-supervisor Doug Peck to maintain the integrity of the original songs — “Colonel Hathi’s March,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” “Baloo’s Blues,” “Your Unexpected Friend,” “Trust in Me,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “My Own Home,” “The Bare Necessities” — yet to subtly transform them using Indian instruments, rhythms and themes. With the addition of a few poems by Kipling and others and incidental music by Richard Sherman and Peck, the score is a marvelous blend impeccably performed by a dozen musicians who are on stage much of the time.
The only drawback in this regard is that, after the set up in which the wolves find the infant Mowgli (a puppet), who grows to the age of 10 (Akash Chopra) in their care, the evening seems to leap from one big production number to the next, and each one tends to overstay its welcome. This tendency peaks with the huge Act I closer after the monkeys kidnap Mowgli and take him to their lair. André De Shields has a ball as King Louie (mimicking Armstrong, though the voice in the movie is Louis Prima‘s) belting out “I Wanna Be Like You,” but by the time the ensemble gets through Christopher Gattelli’s choreography and the chaotic scene, not to mention a built-in encore, it’s exhausting.
While the plot is inherently episodic once Begheera decides that Mowgli needs to return to the human village, the journey the boy takes — and tries to escape — would seem less so if we saw the character change in response to the friends he makes and enemies he overcomes along the way. Chopra has loads of energy and sings and dances up a storm, but he doesn’t do much more than show us a spirited, stubborn 10 year old who wants to get his own way and pouts or sulks when he can’t. This is okay up to a point, but the narrative falls apart when the sight of a young girl causes him to do an about-face and decide he’ll be happy among the humans after all. To us, he’s still just 10, so the sudden transformation is a little creepy, and we get no sense of what he loses – his innocence, for example — by leaving the jungle.
The only hint of this complexity comes in a magical moment near the end. The little boy is back in the Victorian room, curled up in his chair with his book, and his imagination brings the ghost of a jungle friend home. “The Jungle Book” could easily end here but instead has the kind of extravagant finale —“Jungle Rhythm” — that seems to be a requisite for family entertainment nowadays. Maybe Zimmerman et al have their eyes on Broadway, but I think it would be better if they looked first at enhancing the depth of storytelling to make it match the spectacle.