Goodman Theatre’s ‘Jungle Book’ a wonderful new musical
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org July 1, 2013 7:08PM
Akash Chopra (Mowgli) and Kevin Carolan (Baloo) in Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman’s new musical adaption of "The Jungle Book" at Goodman Theatre.
‘The Jungle Book’
When: Through Aug. 1 8
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Info: (312) 443-3800; www.goodmantheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Updated: July 15, 2013 11:10AM
It begins as a tiny reader curls up in a chair in his cozy Victorian bedroom and opens a book. Within seconds, a far more exotic enchantment takes hold as the strains of Indian music are heard, and a giant peacock, ablaze in her turquoise finery, enters to lead the boy to a distant world.
Almost immediately we arrive in a fabulously verdant jungle bursting with brilliantly colored flowers like those you might find in a pop-up book or on a richly woven carpet. Of course this is the India of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” as only director-writer Mary Zimmerman and her many collaborators could conjure it for this highly anticipated world premiere Goodman Theatre production. It is an India that is home to the British Raj, to a wonderfully eccentric, survival-minded group of creatures whose traits are a fusion of animal and human, and to the feisty foundling embraced by a pack of very wise wolves — the “man-cub” to whom they give the name Mowgli (“Frog”).
Kipling’s stories have been around for more than a century. And several generations have discovered them through the hugely popular Disney animated film of 1967 whose irresistible songs (by way of the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman and Terry Gilkyson) now are being so brilliantly rendered with a seductive classical Indian music overlay on American swing jazz as magically finessed by music director Doug Peck and his orchestra.
But this ever-surprising, winningly whimsical show reinvents the tale of a child raised by animals (and reluctantly sent home to join his own species) in ways that live musical theater can do. Entirely fresh and playful, the show captures the spirit of Indian culture in authentic yet always accessible ways. It zestily grabs hold of the beat of a British military march. And it flies fearlessly into Lindy Hop mode, with a bit of scatting here, and the pulse of an Indian raga there. On top of all this, there are the winkingly anthropomorphic moves of the jungle creatures courtesy of choreographer Christopher Gattelli, whose wild and crazy and sometimes poetic mashup includes both tap dance and eye-popping bits of traditional bharata natyam Indian classical dance (by way of Hema Rajagopalan).
The result is a cultural fusion every bit as complex as the one between human and animals that is at the heart of this story in which Mowgli is raised to feel at home in a “foreign” environment, but eventually must rejoin the society to which he belongs.
Zimmerman’s actors are irresistible, beginning with 10-year-old Akash Chopra whose Mowgli is so free and easy, moody and defiant, joyfully natural and musical that you just want to squeeze his adorable little body and save him from the predatory tiger, Shere Khan (Larry Yando) and the harmonizing vultures.
The wolves form a great family, with Anjali Bhimani as Raksha, the maternal spirit who coddles Mowgli. And then there are the boy’s mentors — the proud and sardonic black panther, Bagheera (Usman Ally), and the warm if blithely irresponsible bear, Baloo (Kevin Carolan).
Along the way there is the raucous royalty of the monkey kingdom, with Andre De Shields as King Louie, driving the joint to jumping and beyond in “I Wanna Be Like You,” the song that suggests the difference between man and beast is man’s ability to create fire. (The Sherman brothers’ brilliant songs have never sounded better than they do in this production.)
When the British arrive (to the brassy tune of “Colonel Hathi’s March”), they are outfitted with elephant ears, with Ed Kross spot-on as a bumbling, duty-bound officer and Geoff Packard as his nervous but impassioned lieutenant who makes the show’s most deeply humane statement. Zimmerman never loses sight of the themes of aging, loneliness, death, sacrifice and belonging so crucial to this story.
Glory Curda brings a hauntingly lovely voice to the Little Girl who hints of Mowgli’s impending adulthood. And Timothy Wilson (a spectacular dancer), Victor Wisehart, Govind Kumar, Alka Nayyar, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Nehal Joshi, Monique Haley, Jermey Duvall and Thomas Derrah form a perfect ensemble. The musicians, seen and unseen — and playing on Indian instruments as well as Western ones — are masterful.
As for the spectacular design elements, they are worthy of a review all their own, from Mara Blumenfeld’s witty, color-saturated, Raj-worthy costumes to Daniel Ostling’s sets of floral temples, gilded day beds and snake pits.
Suffice it to say that Zimmerman’s “The Jungle Book” can take its place on the shelf alongside her other classics, from “Metamorphoses” to “The Arabian Nights.”
Note: At certain performances, Roni Akurati will play Mowgli.