Just about everyone knows the story of The Jungle Book: the man cub Mowgli, his affable pal Baloo the bear, the ever-suffering Bagheera the panther, and the treacherous journey to the Man Village. The Goodman Theatre has taken this tale (adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s stories and made famous by Disney’s 1967 film) and staged it with a cast of 18 actors and 12 musicians, and the brand of spectacle upon which Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman has built a career. This ain't Disney's The Jungle Book. Sure, the characters and songs are immediately recognizable, but Zimmerman’s staging has a richness, lushness, and Indian-infused escapism which are all its own. The brilliant score (under the orchestration of Doug Peck) weaves elements of Indian stylings and tribal beats into the infectious tunes we all remember- with the addition of new lyrics and previously unpublished music from Academy Award and Grammy winner Richard Sherman, one of The Jungle Book’s original lyricists. Additionally, impressive choreography and downright acrobatic dancers (choreographed by Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli) provide sheer eye candy, the likes of which the film couldn’t even have begun to dream.
The set pieces range from gorgeous to ingenious. Panels, trapdoors, gilded beds, and ornate boxes all seamlessly move the brisk storyline in a beautifully stylized dance from scene to scene. And clocking in at a little over two hours (with one intermission), I had wondered how my 3 year-old would handle this, her longest play to date. I really shouldn’t have worried at all; she was enthralled, occasionally wondering [aloud] “What’s next? What’s next?”
I’d be hard-pressed to name standouts in this ridiculously talented cast- the ensemble worked exceptionally well as such- but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the scenes with Bagheera (Usman Ally) and Mowgli (10 year-old Akash Chopra), the effervescent King Louie (Andre DeShields), and the comically pitch-perfect Baloo (Kevin Carolan). Raksha, Mowgli’s wolf mother (Anjali Bhimani) was a much-welcomed strong female presence onstage and a personal favorite, but the character my daughter Nora couldn’t keep her eyes off of was The Doe (Alka Nayyar), a silent yet pivotal dancer who played a key role in scenes with Shere Khan (menacingly played by Larry Yando).
And if you think you know The Jungle Book- inside, upside, downside and through from repeated DVD viewings with your little one- rest assured. You don’t. Additions to the plot, clarified motivations, and an emphasis on the transience (and innocence) of youth will renew your love of this story and perhaps even (ahem) cause you to tear up a little at the end.
This spectacular show is absolutely one of the “Bear Necessities” for summertime theatre in Chicago; do not miss it!
Runs June 21st- August 11th, 2013
Visit The Goodman Theatre’s website for more details!