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Goodman Theatre, Disney unite for stage version of ‘Jungle Book’

Usman Ally as Bagheerpanther Akash Chopras Mowgli 'The Jungle Book' Goodman Theatre. | LIZ LAUREN PHOTO

Usman Ally as Bagheera the panther and Akash Chopra as Mowgli in "The Jungle Book" at Goodman Theatre. | LIZ LAUREN PHOTO

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◆ Previews begin Friday; opens July 1 and runs through Aug. 11

◆ Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

◆ Tickets, $27-$125

◆ (312) 443-3800;

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Updated: June 23, 2013 1:54PM

‘Walt Disney would have loved this fusion.”

These words could not come from a better authority — the Oscar- and Grammy-winning Richard Sherman, who, with his late brother, Robert, wrote five of the songs on the much-beloved soundtrack for “The Jungle Book,” Disney’s 1967 animated film inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s book of stories.

A vigorous, enthusiastic man of 85, Sherman has become an avid fan and collaborator on what might best be described as the great cross-cultural love fest at the Goodman Theatre.

The show, of course, is the world premiere stage version of “The Jungle Book,” adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman (creator of the Tony Award-winning “Metamorphoses” and a slew of other magical productions). Serving as her musical director is Doug Peck, who has not only assembled a remarkable orchestra of 12 that includes both Eastern and Western musicians, but has been given permission to adapt and orchestrate the beloved songs by the Sherman brothers (among them “I Wanna Be Like You,” “Trust in Me” and “Colonel Hathi’s March,” plus “Baloo’s Blues,” which was not used in the movie), along with Terry Gilkyson’s “Bare Necessities.” Peck also has woven some new lyrics into the mix, and created underscoring that is a unique blend of jazz and traditional Indian music.

Sherman delights in telling the story of how he and his brother got the plum Disney assignment, and in explaining just how the production now being devised by Zimmerman (who he clearly adores), will bring the story of Mowgli — the little Indian boy who is raised in the animal kingdom, but ultimately enters “the man world” — into a whole new realm.

“The Kipling book, and the original screenplay and songs devised for it, were quite dark and a bit scary,” said Sherman. “Walt wanted the story told his way, so he scrapped much of the first version. My brother and I were on staff then, and when he called us in he asked: ‘Have you read the book?” We had to admit we hadn’t. And he said, ‘Good. Don’t read it. I will tell you the story.’ And for the next 10 or 15 minutes he portrayed all the characters as he envisioned them, complete with changes of face and attitude. He then said to us: ‘Have fun with it, and don’t make it scary. Walt wanted a popular piece, and it turned out to be the very last work he produced before his death.”

It was Zimmerman’s agent who suggested her to Disney Theatrical Productions as a possible director for a stage version.

“I prepared hard for the first meeting,” Zimmerman admitted. “And I was very frank about wanting to take the elements of Indian music and dance seriously, without losing the great joy of the animated version.”

And so, in the winter of 2011, Zimmerman and her veteran team of collaborators — Peck, set designer Dan Ostling, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld and lighting designer T.J. Gerckens — headed off to India for a two-week research trip.

“It really wasn’t a boondoggle,” quipped Zimmerman, noting that Kipling, the English writer who was born in India, actually wrote “The Jungle Book” in the 1890s, during a period when he lived in Vermont.

“We got a tremendous sense of daily life in India, plus the architecture and music, the sun, the air and the animals — especially the monkeys, who are everywhere, some friendly and some not. We even visited a tiger park.”

Zimmerman, who is emphatic that “The Jungle Book” will not be a traditional “24-song Broadway musical, but rather, a quirky musical evening with some surprises,” has tapped two choreographers — Broadway veteran Chris Gatelli [the Tony Award-winner for “Newsies”], and Hema Rajagopalan, founder and artistic director of Chicago’s Natya Dance Theatre, an expert in Bharata Natyam, the rhythmically and gesturally-charged classical Indian dance technique.

“Hema showed me some crucial elements from the Indian dance vocabulary — the gestures for fangs, for a tail, for a snake — that all made perfect sense,” said Gatelli. “And I saw the influence of Indian dance in so much jazz dancing — even that of Bob Fosse and his way of suggesting a teacup.”

The show’s 18-member cast blends longtime Zimmerman collaborators with newcomers. It is led by 10-year-old Akash Chopra as the stubborn, fearless Mowgli (with Roni Akurati playing the role at select performances); Usman Ally as Bagheera, the wise old panther; Anjali Bhimani as Raksha, the warmhearted Mother Wolf; Kevin Carolan as Baloo the carefree bear; Glory Curda as the Little Girl; Thomas Derrah as Kaa, the sly-but-charming snake; Andre DeShields as King Louie, the ambitious-but-comically scattered orangutan and Akela, the leader of the wolf pack; and Larry Yando as Shere Khan the crafty, powerful tiger and arch villain.

Actress Anjali Bhimani, the daughter of Indian immigrants, admitted “some Indians, though not my wonderfully open-minded parents, think Kipling was just a British imperialist and find his writing offensive. But for me, ‘The Jungle Book’ was simply a story from my childhood that let me access adult themes through animals.” And actor Usman Ally, who grew up in Tanzania, the son of Pakistani parents, noted: “As a kid of five or six what excited me about ‘The Jungle Book’ was its representation of kids of color. And Mary Zimmerman just believes in telling the story for what it is — a coming-of-age tale about a boy raised in great freedom who has to grow up.” Sherman sums up “The Jungle Book” this way: “It is a story about love, and what a wonderful thing it is. It is about a human child embraced by the love of animals, and about a boy who ultimately finds himself attracted to a little girl. And it is that love that brings him into manhood.”

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