Chicago Theatre Review
Into The Wild
The Jungle Book
Chicago has become a developmental hotbed for Broadway bound plays and musicals, especially within the last ten years. The latest entry is Mary Zimmerman’s highly-anticipated stage adaptation of Walt Disney’s animated classic. The film had been freely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s episodic coming-of-age story about Mowgli, the man cub raised by wild jungle animals. Influenced by Kipling’s time spent in British-colonial India, Ms. Zimmerman has integrated much of the look, sound and culture from this Asian time and place into her musical. The result is a stage adaptation that’s visually stunning, often musically pleasing, but lacking in a real connection to the heart.
It’s inevitable, because of its continued international success, to compare this production with another Disney stage adaptation, Julie Taymor’s innovative, wildly popular “The Lion King.” Both productions stir the imagination with their creative costuming and set designs, but Taymor opens her adaptation of the popular animated Disney film with a production number that brings a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. She allows audiences to experience the lessons Simba learns first-hand, and the journey both character and audience takes comes full-circle by the final curtain. It also helps that, thanks to Elton John’s additional music, the score is perfection.
Ms. Zimmerman has created her musical by borrowing from both the Disney film and Kipling’s original book (which began as a collection of magazine installments in the late 1800’s). There’s much fine attention to detail, both from the look and the sound of the piece, but besides telling the story at an almost leisurely pace, the audience is never offered any investment with the characters.
As the musical opens a mysterious peacock lady enters a little boy’s tiny room as he’s reading The Jungle Book and leads him into the world of the story. There’s promise of an exciting survival tale when the man cub’s future is debated between the wolf pack and Bagheera, a black panther. Terrifying Shere Khan, a Bengal tiger, has just killed and eaten the boy’s parents and wants to finish the job by devouring the little baby (embodied by a remarkably lifelike puppet). It’s the other jungle animals’ united concern that saves Mowgli (named by the wolf mother for his resemblance to a little frog) and ultimately teaches him life’s lessons in the wild. However, the story unfolds with a cool detachment and the audience never really connects with the characters until the final moment of the play. By then it’s too little, too late.
Ms. Zimmerman’s cast, however, is flawless. Chicago’s Usman Ally, so wonderful as Ali Hakim in the Lyric’s recent production of “Oklahoma,” guides both Mowgli and the production along as the panther, Bagheera. He’s a terrific, cool-headed instructor for the young boy because he understands the ways of the world, both animal and man. With grace and maturity, Ally provides the voice of this musical. Kevin Carolan’s lovable Baloo, the sloth bear, becomes Mowgli’s surrogate father and his roly-poly comic relief is much welcomed in this dark tale of survival. In fact, the musical doesn’t really take off until Carolan’s well-sung rendition of Terry Gilkyson’s jazzy, much-adored “The Bare Necessities.” Andre De Shields (Broadway’s “The Wiz” and “The Full Monty,” as well as many other productions) provides the show’s star power both as Akela, the father wolf, and as the wildly limber orangutan, King Louie. His way with comedy, lyrics and music is fun and infectious, as he enlivens the play with Act I’s finale, the Sherman brothers‘ “I Wanna Be Like You.” The prolific Larry Yando, famous for so many roles, but especially his excellent portrayal of Scar in the National Tour of “The Lion King,” brings his deep-voiced menace to the role of Shere Khan. One wishes, however, that he had been given a bit more stage time in this production. And young Akash Chopra fulfills the audience’s expectations as Mowgli although, one would expect from the size and importance of his role that he would have more musical moments.
The ensemble is comprised of a dozen or more terrific singers and dancers, each mastering every musical style thrown their way. Christopher Gattelli’s multicultural choreography is inventive and often breathtaking, one moment Bollywood-inspired and the next tap or modern. Doug Peck’s 12-member orchestra (as well as his brilliant orchestrations), often appearing on stage or suspended in mid-air, masters both the Indian and Dixieland sounds of the score. But the real stars of this production are Mara Blumenfeld’s sumptuous, Indian-inspired animal costumes, and Daniel Ostling’s lush, floral set designs that seem to effectively reduce the cast to the size of animals.
This musical, which is rumored to be Broadway bound, needs a bit more work to make the story both speak to the heart and still keep it commercial enough for the Big Apple. But as a vibrant, strikingly gorgeous visual entertainment for the whole family, it ranks up there with some of the best.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 21-August 11 by The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.