The Jungle Book
In terms of buzz, it's hard to have amassed a greater stock of the phenomenon than the world-premiere production of Goodman Theatre's "The Jungle Book" did this spring. For weeks, if not months, I have seen the reimagining from Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman advertised on billboards, the back of CTA buses and anywhere else where a little splash of color can draw the theatergoer's eye.
Press materials describe the musical's stage debut as "drawing from both the Walt Disney 1967 animated film as well as Rudyard Kipling's 1894 collection of stories set in the Indian jungle." Although I possess a certainly level of pop cultural familiarity with both source texts, I have intimate knowledge of neither. And so it was that I took my seat in the spacious Albert Theater this past weekend unencumbered by prejudice. I could hum a few bars of "Bare Necessities" if pressed, and was tangentially aware of the accusations of misogyny and racism in Kipling's work, but neither of these factors prevented me from taking in the performance with unaffected eyes.
And what a sight for the eyes (and ears) Zimmerman's finished product is. While retaining the American jazz and swing influences that render the animated film's score so resonant with modern audiences, Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls notes the injection of indigenous strains into the stage rhythms.
"Mary was drawn by the beauty of India itself, a land of grace and enchantment that permeates all of these tales. She and her collaborators (including music director Doug Peck and Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli) have steeped themselves in the sights and sounds of South Asia, creating a lush and beguiling environment that contains elements of both Disney and Kipling."
So many creative elements threaten to burst from the confines of the Albert Stage into a three-dimensional explosion of drums, color, elaborate set pieces and show stopping musical numbers. Two favorites toward the end of the first act, the aforementioned "Bare Necessities," and "I Wanna Be Like You," holdovers from the Disney film, are given new life with the powerful voices of Kevin Carolan (Baloo) and Andre De Shields (King Louie).
I liked the juxtaposition of these two numbers for structural as well as entertainment reasons. Baloo, the lumbering, lovable, indolent "Papa Bear" protector of young Mowgli imparts a philosophy of worry-free ease just prior to the predatory, power-hungry diatribe of the regal primate.
I fear however that my last observation may leave the impression of nuanced, engaging storytelling, where in fact, there is none. If the Goodman's production of "The Jungle Book" has a weakness, it may be the very same one that discerning adults find in the Disney film. There is no plot, just an organized stringing together of grandiose, kaleidoscopic numbers in service of superficial delight in the "other."
While one comes to expect this type of whitewashing from the Mouse House, patrons of the Goodman tend to want more: character development, intrigue and surprise mixed with historical elements when appropriate. The lack of details buttressing the broad story board (boy meets jungle before accepting his place within man's world) is simply not enough context to make the arc one we should care about.
Before you walk away from your computer monitor or smart phone in a huff, I still highly recommend "The Jungle Book." But adult patrons should manage their expectations. The production is appropriate for all ages and certain to yield squeals of delight from younger audience members (some were audible from amazed older ones as well). "That's What Friends Are For," a barber shop quartet number ably performed by a comic team of vultures toward the second act, was a personal standout.
And in a cast filled with amazing dancers, I have to single out Timothy Wilson (Wolf and others) who is a Cirque du Soleil performer on speed during "I Wanna Be Like You." The actor's tricks and acrobatics in this and the encore number will catch your breath.
"The Jungle Book" runs at the Goodman through Aug. 11 before transferring to Boston's Huntington Theatre through early October. Though producers report no plans for a Broadway run at this time, you have to believe that is the ultimate goal.
But if "The Jungle Book" wants to gain the Great White Way traction of "The Lion King" and other successful Disney films turned stage musicals, it will have to tinker with the emotional pull of the storytelling. It's got the visuals nailed.
"The Jungle Book" runs through Aug. 11 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets call 312-443-3811 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.