PHOTO: LIZ LAUREN
Visually sumptuous and sonically glorious, Mary Zimmerman’s hotly-anticipated adaptation of The Jungle Book is fantastical candy for the eyes and ears. The musical, which is grounded in Disney’s 1967 animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s children’s book, is packed with marvelous performances as a game corps of versatile actors morph into cleverly anthropomorphic versions of jungle critters ranging from fearsome tigers to delicate does. With its vivid color palette, alternately rollicking and languidly mesmerizing score and intelligent, empathetically accessible story.
But while the young are sure to be rendered awestruck by Zimmerman’s wonder-fueled storytelling, The Jungle Book may leave adults wanting more. In telling the tale of Mowgli, the "man cub" raised by a loving wolf pack, Zimmerman has crafted a show where visual and sonic dazzle overpower the emotional stakes. The creatures of the wild all look and sound amazing, thanks in no small part to costume designer Mara Blumenfeld’s inspired creations and conductor Doug Peck’s orchestrations of Robert and Richard Sherman’s original score. Still, most of The Jungle Book’s characters feel underwritten.
Mowgli’s adventures are remarkably realized as he travels from the wolf pack to the loving paws of the kindly, slinky panther Bagheera (Usman Ally, fully in touch with his feline side) to the coils of the sinister snake Kaa (a mesmerizing Thomas Derrah) to the ranks of a buffoonish brigade of elephants (led by a ditherbrained, hilariously buttoned up Ed Kross) and up to the treetop lair of the swinging orangutan King Louie (Andre De Shields). The trouble is that Mowgli (the adorable Akash Chopra, who alternates in the role with Roni Akurati) doesn’t linger at each stop long enough for any of his jungle peers to become much more than cartoons. Perhaps that’s inevitable for a musical that is, after all, based on a cartoon. Still, within the renditions of animal folk that define the production, I was left wanting depth in proportion to all those remarkable sights and sounds.
Arguably the thinnest and most frustrating of the characters is predatory role of the tiger Shere Khan (Larry Yando, a Lion King veteran who knows a thing or three about playing big cats with bad intentions). His 11th hour sense of self-actualization aside, Shere Khan is little more than a paper tiger.
Kipling’s troublesome politics (in his poem “White Man’s Burden”, he showed himself to be both a racist and an unabashed proponent of Colonialism) simply don’t figure in Zimmerman’s adaptation. Nor does the criticism that Disney’s movie played into Kipling’s abhorrent views, most tellingly in the number “I Wanna Be Like You,” sung in the film by Louis Prima in the role of the orangutan King Louie.
Here, the fiercely elegant Andre De Shields absolutely owns the role of the King of the Swingers, stopping the show cold with his roof-raising, infectiously celebratory rendition of a song expressing Louie’s desire to obtain the secrets of fire. The ultra-high energy number left me with two uncontrollably tapping feet and a grin as wide as the loveable bear Baloo’s (Kevin Carolan) chubby, honey-filled tummy. De Shields sings, swings and scats with a regal, red-hot cool that leaves no doubt: With all due respect to the Shere Khan and Bagheera, Louie is the coolest cat in the jungle.
Music is, of course, paramount to The Jungle Book. In preparation for the show, Peck made multiple trips to India in order to imbue the Sherman’s jazzy original songs with the sounds of sitars, carnatic violins, tablas and dholaks. Conducting a 13-person orchestra, Peck oversees a lush merger of eastern and western modulations and melodies. From the haunting, opening harmonies sent wafting over the audience to the barbershop antics of the vultures (led by the sweet tenor of Geoff Packard), The Jungle Book sounds amazing. One can only hope that, at some point, a cast recording becomes available—along with a bit more emotional heft.
The Jungle Book runs through August 11 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, goodmantheatre.org. Tickets start at $30.