‘The Jungle Book’ is pleasurable but imperfect
BOSTON — After glowing reviews from the Chicago press after its initial run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago this summer, the bar was set high for the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “The Jungle Book” even before previews began.
Mary Zimmerman, the Tony Award-winning creative and directorial genius behind the Huntington’s superb revival of “Candide” two seasons ago, has written the book and directed “The Jungle Book,” based largely on the 1967 Disney animated film and the stories of Rudyard Kipling.
It’s the story of Mowgli, the “man-cub” raised by wolves in the jungle who must decided whether to stay in the jungle or move back with his own kind.
“The Jungle Book” is going to be compared, fairly or unfairly, to another Disney show that went from animation to the live stage: the long-running mega-hit “The Lion King.”
And yes, it is a much different animal, so to speak. Here, the relationship between the animals of the jungle and the actors who portray them is more suggested than realized, a world away from the groundbreaking costumes and puppets that Julie Taymor designed for “The Lion King.”
And there’s nothing wrong with relying on the talents of a skilled actor to put across the habits and personalities of, in this case, the panther Bagheera (Usman Ally) or the tiger Shere Khan (Larry Yando).
“The Jungle Book” started with the benefit of original songs from the animated version — “Bare Necessities” is the most familiar — augmented with “trunk songs” by Richard and Robert Sherman that were never used in the film, as well as additional music and lyrics by Lorraine Feather, Paul Grabowsky, Terry Hilkyson and Richard Sherman.
Much of the additional music is Indian in nature, performed by a skilled group of musicians who are often given often center stage by Zimmerman.
In fact, Zimmerman has generously infused the show with both Indian music and culture, perhaps to offset the attitudes of Kipling, an unrepentant supporter of the British colonial empire.
Zimmerman’s adaptation begins with a young boy reading Kipling’s stories who is suddenly whisked away to the jungle.
There we find Mowgli, the “man-cub” who has been orphaned after his parents have been killed by Shere Khan. He is living among a pack of wolves who are debating whether to protect Mowgli or leave him for Shere Khan.
Akash Chopra as Mowgli is a bright, promising youngster with an abundance of moxie and stage presence
Unfortunately, “The Jungle Book” seems to unfolds a series of vignettes and separate scenes without a true sense of continuity. And now Mowgli meets Kaa … And now Mowgli meets this one and that one.
Kevin Carolan as Baloo the bear is by far the most engaging animal in Zimmerman’s jungle, full of warmth and a light-hearted goofiness, a melding of human and animal along the lines of Kevin Chamberlin’s Tony-nominated portrayal of Horton the Elephant in “Seussical.”
Thomas Derrah as Kaa is an engaging, funny as well as menacing giant python — you would expect no less — and Zimmerman finds several different very creative ways to suggest his size and movement around the stage.
Andre De Shields as King Louie the orangutan is another fine performance and his “I Wanna Be Like You” at the end of the first act is is a musical highlight, as are the four vultures on a branch singing “That’s What Friends are For” in the second act — an absolute hoot.
Larry Yando as the malevolent but conflicted Shere Khan has his moments — especially at the end — but Usman Ally as Bagheera the panther and Ed Kross as Colonel Hathi, the high-striding British leader of the parading pachyderms, both left me cold.
Again, all of the individual performances didn’t add up to a cohesive, memorable evening of theater.
Daniel Ostling’s set composed of sliding pieces suggesting the flora and fauna of India burst with color, suggesting the raw the beauty of the jungle, but it also doesn’t suggest the danger and trouble around the corner for the “man-cub” Mowgli as he struggles to find his way.
Christopher Gatelli’s Tony-winning choreography was the best part of another recent Disney theatrical hit on Broadway — “Newsies” — but here it doesn’t often stand out and seems muted at times.
Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes don’t disappoint — they are styled on Indian and colonial garb of the 19th Century — and are colorful, creative and allow the actors to move freely and easily.
So while there are many pleasures large and small, “The Jungle Book” never lifts you out of your seat the way you thought it would.
The public may disagree. The production has been extended to Oct. 20 with a long string of sellouts ahead. Given the Huntington’s national reputation, Zimmerman’s resume and the general acclaim, Boston may not be the show’s last stop.
The Huntington Theatre Company and Goodman Theatre production of “The Jungle Book.” Based on the Disney animated film and the stories of Rudyard Kipling. Book and direction by Mary Zimmerman. Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Additional music and lyrics by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowsky, Terry Gilkyson and Richard M. Sherman. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Music orchestration, supervision, adaptation and arrangement by Doug Peck. Scenic design by Daniel Ostling. Costume design by Mara Blumenfeld. Lighing design by T.J. Gerckens. Sound design by Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli and Andre J, Pleuss. http://www.huntingtontheatre.org.