I’m not surprised that “The Jungle Book” has proven a big hit in its world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre (extended through Aug. 18). My high hopes led to the scheduling of the latest IBJ A&E Road Trip before the show even started rehearsals.
What I am surprised and pleased about is that the stage version so effectively captures the charm of the animated movie classic while also broadening its artistic focus, making it sumptuously theatrical.
Any kid who grew up on Disney classics or, less likely, read their Rudyard Kipling, knows the story, which arrives on the stage, with the original Sherman Brothers tunes supplemented by more from their song trunk.
To recap: As a baby, Mowgli is stranded in the jungle where he is raised by wolves until Shere Khan the tiger threatens his safety and he’s sent, chaperoned by Bagheera the Panther, to the “man village.” On the way, he encounters a free-spirited bear, an ambitious orangutan, a regiment of drilling elephants, a hypnotic snake and others.
Disney could have pushed for a production that simply translates the movie to the stage, a la “Beauty and the Beast.” Instead, it hired Tony-winning director/adapter Mary Zimmerman, who didn’t even start writing a script until she had her actors assembled.
The organic development paid off. For this visual knockout of a show, Zimmerman and her talented team embraced the culture of India, where the story is set, infusing not just the dance style but the visual palette and the music with Indian styles and techniques. Even a Hindu deity makes an appearance (a choice that’s gutsy but doesn’t quite work).
Ever since “The Lion King” roared onto the stage, the challenge for anthropomorphic stage productions hasn’t been just, “How do we show animals?” but, “How do we show animals while not copying Julie Taymor’s animals?” I won’t give away all the secrets here, but “The Jungle Book” effectively and sometimes brilliantly blends the human and the animal through stylized movement and costumes that suggest rather than replicate beastly behavior.
There’s still some work to be done. Shere Kahn’s Act II song is a pace-killing distraction; the added element of an older wolf, Akira, doesn’t quite pay off; and Baloo’s costume could be rethought.
But those are small complaints about a ravishing production. When the bliss of Baloo’s “Bear Necessities” number leads to the Indian musicians’ leaving the orchestra pit for the stage; when King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” song erupts into monkey madness; and even in quieter moments, such as when an ideally cast Mowgli (Akash Choptra) stares with disbelief at the surrogate parents he thinks are abandoning him, “The Jungle Book” keeps finding new ways to engage and enchant.
It might not become the new king of the Disney theatrical jungle, but if there’s any justice in theater, soon we’ll be seeing as many Mowglis on stages around the country as we will Annies, Billys, Matildas and Simbas.•
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