BWW REVIEW: 'THE JUNGLE BOOK' SWINGS IN BOSTON
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company and Goodman Theatre by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions; based on the Disney animated film and the stories of Rudyard Kipling; 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; book and direction, Mary Zimmerman; choreography, Christopher Gattelli; music orchestration, supervision, adaptation and arrangement, Doug Peck; scenic design, Daniel Ostling; costume design, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting design, T.J. Gerckens; sound design, Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli, and André J. Pluess; production stage manager, M. William Shiner
Cast in Order of Appearance:
Peacock and others, Nikka Graff Lanzarone; Doe, Insect and others, Alka Nayyar; Akela and King Louie, André De Shields; Wolf and others, Timothy Wilson; Wolf and others, Victor Wisehart; Wolf and others, Nebi Berhane; Wolf, Vulture and others, Govind Kumar; Rama (a wolf) and others, Nehal Joshi; Bagheera, Usman Ally; Raksha (a wolf) and others, Anjali Bhimani; Shere Khan, Larry Yando; Insect and others, Monique Haley; Insect and others, Jeremy Duvall; Mowgli, Roni Akurati and Akash Chopra; Kaa and others, Thomas Derrah; Colonel Hathi and others, Ed Kross; Lieutenant George, Giddha (a vulture) and others, Geoff Packard; Baloo and others, Kevin Carolan; Little Girl, Glory Curda
Performances and Tickets:
Now through October 20, Huntington Theatre Company, BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, Mass.; tickets range from $25-$135 and are available at the Box Office, online at www.huntingtontheatre.org or by calling 617-266-0800.There's no question that The Jungle Book, director Mary Zimmerman's vibrant musical staging of the classic Disney animated film based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, is a real crowd pleaser. The co-production of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and Huntington Theatre Company in Boston has passed The Combined 100-performance mark, broken all box office records at the Huntington, and been extended at the BU Theatre through October 20. It's a dazzler, to be sure. Sets and costumes are bright and colorful, dance numbers are zesty and inventive, and the infusion of Indian instruments and rhythms into the beloved Sherman Brothers score makes old jazz and family favorites sound exhilarating and new. But once the novelty of Zimmerman's eye-and-ear popping fantasy world wears off, what's left is a story that simply doesn't grip the heart. Zimmerman frames her stage adaptation of the familiar tale of the "man cub" Mowgli's adventures as if it were Kipling's storybook come to life. Fantastic Indian jungle flora and fauna spring from the page and engulf a young male reader in three dimensions. The boy then becomes Mowgli, stepping into the lush world his imagination has created. Once inside, he sets out on Mowgli's quest to stay in the jungle forever. As with Kipling's book and especially the Disney animated film, The Jungle Book unfolds as a series of episodes marking Mowgli's encounters with various exotic animals. Raised by wolves when found abandoned in the jungle, Mowgli (Akash Chopra at the press performance) has been considered one of the pack's own since infancy. However, now that he is maturing, certain jungle leaders, especially Shere Khan (Larry Yando), the bitter old Bengal Tiger, see him as a threat. Some fear that Mowgli could one day turn against them, using the human weapons of guns and fire to destroy them. Thus Bagheera (Usman Ally), the wise and protective Black Panther, decides it's time for Mowgli to return to the "man village" where he belongs - before Shere Khan and others can kill him. Mowgli refuses to join the humans and runs off into the jungle alone. There he meets Kaa (Thomas Derrah), a hungry, salivating snake who tries to hypnotize him into becoming a reptile repast by hissing "Trust in Me;" Colonel Hathi (Ed Kross), a blustering British imperialist who drills a pack of prancing pachyderms in the military "Colonel Hathi's March;" King Louie (André De Shields), the flamboyant orangutan who leads his swingin' troop of mischievous monkeys in a roof-raising "I Wanna Be Like You;" and Baloo (Kevin Carolan), an easy-going bear who teaches Mowgli the "Bare Necessities" of life. While all of these infectious musical numbers are great, great fun, the story into which they are randomly inserted - like the Disney film itself - never builds. Mowgli simply bumps from one episode to another, never seeming to be in any real danger from Kaa, King Louie, or Shere Khan. Zimmerman's promising framing device is also never fully manifested. Instead of giving both the boy who enters the story and Mowgli compelling reasons to risk life and limb in order to stay in the jungle, she ignores the opportunity to add depth to their characters. A deep connection between Mowgli and Bagheera is missing, too. As the surrogate father figure who understands completely what it's like to be raised by others - the panther lived in captivity in a "man village" during his childhood - Bagheera absolutely should have a song that expresses his empathy for Mowgli. Later, when Mowgli realizes that he will indeed be happier in the human world, a reprise of that song as he says goodbye would be a powerful expression of thanks and understanding toward Bagheera. What Zimmerman gives us instead is the same simplistic boy-meets-girl ending that pops up out of nowhere in the Disney movie. What a shame that the primal trigger for Mowgli's discovery of himself as a human comes not from some long-buried visceral memory of belonging - or from his new pain of alienation from the only "family" he has ever known - but from a song about marriage that he hears a pretty young Indian girl sing while gathering water at the river at The Edge of the jungle. It doesn't help that the young actor playing Mowgli (Akash Chopra) simply isn't up to the task of carrying a big show on his tiny shoulders. He never truly takes the stage or conveys what he's feeling. He does little more than recite lines or go through the motions (and awkwardly at that). Unlike the many little girls who have tugged at our heartstrings in Annie, or the young boys who have moved us as Oliver or thrilled us in Billy Elliot, Chopra is unable to spark any real interest or emotion. The most captivating performance by far is given by Kevin Carolan as the jocular Baloo. A perfect warm-hearted sound-alike for Phil Harris who voiced the character in the Disney movie, Carolan is every bit as huggable as a Teddy Bear should be. His love for Mowgli is unquestionable, despite his laissez faire attitude toward relationships and life. When he laughs, the sound resonates through the rafters and rises up from his substantial toes. When he sings, it is with a warmth and playfulness that plasters a smile on every heart. Carolan unquestionably anchors the show. The intended show stealer is André De Shields as King Louie, the character created by Disney in 1967 for jazz great Louis Prima. De Shields belts, riffs and scats with the best of them, but Zimmerman has given him one too many soaring improvisational reprises in his Act I closer, "I Wanna Be Like You." De Shields builds the number joyously and exults in swingin' and swayin' like a Zoot-suited Cab Calloway. But if he would end the song on the powerful button that he shouts out to the audience almost demandingly, he would leave the audience to mull over the inequities in the evolutionary hierarchy that have robbed him of the respect he deserves. Instead we get one more extended wail that focuses on De Shield's virtuosity. As Bagheera, Usman Ally cuts a sympathetic and heroic figure, balancing the proud panther's kind-hearted nature with intelligent diplomacy. Thomas Derrah as the slithering Kaa is seductive if not completely sinister. Ed Kross as the pompous Colonel Hathi and Geoff Packard as his faithful Lieutenant George make a delightfully bumbling pair of vaudeville-style Brits, and Nikka Graff Lanzarone as the peacock is as beautiful as she is majestic. Only Larry Yando as the menacing Shere Khan disappoints. Seeming to take a page out of The Lion King's Scar, he adopts a foppish manner and aloof speech pattern that neutralize the danger he is supposed to represent. He sounds oddly like the ironic Captain Hook of Cyril Ritchard.
While Zimmerman has added some wonderfully imaginative touches to The Jungle Book, those flourishes only magnify what's missing when she falls back on the formulaic. Her integration of Indian themes into every aspect of the production is terrific and enriches the fabric of the story immensely. It also resolves a number of the questionable issues inherent in both Kipling's dated and Disney's sanitized source material. Likewise Zimmerman's framing device is truly inspired - as far as it goes - with her final coda being at once surprising, whimsical and tender. But the addition of a Bollywood-style mega mix to the finale crushes that lovely final moment, trading charm for a rousing (and unnecessarily forced) curtain call instead.
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli is for the most part rip-roaring fun. His tap-dancing monkeys in the raucous "Jungle Rhythm" seem to blend live action with unfettered animation. "Colonel Hathi's March" brings musicians out of the pit and turns them into a marching band. Their animal trumpet sounds are a perfect match to the dancing ensemble's synchronized elephant walk. Gattelli misfires on "Trust in Me," though, drawing focus away from Kaa's hypnotic spell on Mowgli by adding a chorus of black-robed snake-like body segments who juggle a collection of rainbow-colored balls behind him. The idea is obviously an attempt to amplify the hypnotic effect that Kaa's glassy eye can induce. Unfortunately the result is more distracting than mesmerizing.
PHOTOS BY Liz Lauren: Akash Chopra as Mowgli and Kevin Carolan as Baloo; Thomas Derrah as Kaa and Akash Chopra; Akash Chopra and Usman Ally as Bagheera; André De Shields as King Louie and Company; Thomas Derrah and Larry Yando as Shere Khan; Ed Kross as Colonel Hathi and Company
There is certainly a lot to enjoy in this stage adaptation of The Jungle Book, the music being its greatest pleasure. But there could have been so much more done to realize its full potential. Perhaps with more revisions to the book, and a few added songs to deepen Mowgli and Bagheera's relationship and characters, Zimmerman and her creative team can turn this fun if unfulfilling diversion into something truly special.