Assimilation. That is the essence of author Rudyard Kipling’s brilliantly epic The Jungle Book which tells the story of a human raised among the animals in the jungles on India. Kipling himself was caught between two cultures, British and Indian, and in stories such as Gunda Din and The Man Who Would Be King, his cross culture views are front and center. However, it is in the pure innocence of The Jungle Book, which now and forever is associated with the 1967 Disney film, that Kipling harnesses the simple (yet complex) notion of belonging.
The Goodman Theatre, in association with Disney Theatrical Productions (and our friend Thomas Schumacher) has in many ways gone back to basics in Kipling’s book. Under the magical eye of the incomparable Mary Zimmerman, The Jungle Book, with the familiar Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman score, takes its place as one of the greatest adaptations of a Disney animated film since Julie Taymor’s groundbreaking The Lion King (and yes, comparisons are necessary and inevitable). In many ways, Ms. Zimmerman and Ms. Taymor view their projects in a similar fashion, which is why there is more of an emotional investment in their properties then some of the others (ie: Tarzan and The Little Mermaid).
For the Goodman premiere, Ms. Zimmerman has pulled out all the stops. The musical opens with a young boy reading Kipling’s story, when an imposing Victorian lady (Mrs. Peacock) takes the boy by the hand and through the bedroom door. The simple set falls away into the largess of the Indian jungle. After and audible gasp from the audience of the scenic beauty of Daniel Ostling’s set, we are instantly invested and captivated by the adventures of young Mowgli (a stunningly honest performance by Akash Chopra) the man-cub and his assimilation with the jungle animals. Our collective childhood comes rushing forward as we are once again in the presence of Baloo the Bear, Bagheera the Panther, Shere Khan the tiger and a delightful band of forgetful elephants (who steal each scene they are in).
What Ms. Zimmerman’s Jungle Book does so well is what Kipling intended in his work; showing the innate beauty of India, both visually and morally. Visually, we have gorgeous costumes (Mara Blemenfeld), stunning choreography (Christopher Gattelli) and inventive lighting (T.J. Gerckens) moving in concert with the morality aspect of the musical which delves into religious notions such as reincarnation; but in an honest, truthful manner which is never preachy or overbearing. It just is. All this is done under the supreme ear of musical director Doug Peck, who has incorporated Indian instruments and sounds for added authenticity in the score’s orchestration.
The cast for the Goodman premiere is one of the best ever assembled. Andre de Shields proves that he is musical theatre royalty as Akela and King Louie (who received a standing ovation after his Louis Armstrong fueled number): Kevin Carolan brings Belushi-esqe lovability to his Baloo; Larry Yando continues to show he is one of the world’s finest actors and Usman Ally is perfectly cast as the panther who becomes Mowgli’s surrogate. Some of the best moments of this Jungle Book comes from the ensemble, led by the hilarious Ed Cross and Geoff Packard (forever Candide) who together have an unspoken comic camaraderie between them, akin to Conway and Korman.
There are several times during this production where is does go off course a bit, especially in the second act which could use a trim. But by the time the last scene is upon us, with the boy back in the confines of his home and a watchful soul is shown to be still vigil, there is nary a dry eye in the house. It is that connection that is soul of Kipling’s words and the heart of Ms. Zimmerman’s triumphant premiere.
The Jungle Book runs through August 11, 2013 at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn St, Chicago, IL 60601 and can be reached by phone at (312) 443-3800. For tickets and more information, please visit www.goodmantheatre.org or www.theatreinchicago.com.