As you might expect from the MacArthur- and Tony-winning director Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses), the new stage adaptation of The Jungle Book is visually stunning, from the picture-book-perfect set design of Daniel Ostling to the eye-popping Indian-accented costumes of Mara Blumenfeld. This inventive but theatrically uneven production, playing at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre through Aug. 11 before moving to Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company this fall, is bookended by a memorable tableau of a young boy in a tiny room, reading in an armchair as a whole world opens up to him.
The boy, of course, becomes Mowgli, the ”man cub” abandoned in the Indian jungle after a fatal tiger attack on his parents and raised by a series of wild (and wildly anthropomorphic) animals in Rudyard Kipling’s popular 1894 book and the subsequent 1967 Disney animated film. Perhaps inevitably, Zimmerman struggles to reconcile these two competing influences — the dark and, some say, colonialism-tinged stories of Kipling and the considerably lighter Disney-fied version, memorable for catchy songs like ”Bear Necessities” and the scat-scattered ”I Wanna Be Like You.”
Like Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, Zimmerman uses puppetry and folksy but sophisticated stagecraft to tell Mowgli’s story, from a peacock lady appearing on stilts (hidden beneath a long feathered dress) to blue petals standing in for water. Similarly, the protagonist is a young boy, played by 10-year-old Akash Chopra with an impressive naturalism (Roni Akurati has the role in some performances). But as director/adapter, Zimmerman is also saddled with a picaresque story featuring a rotating cast of characters and a narrative arc that is not always as clear as it could be — the climactic finale, involving a metaphoric fire used to vanquish the evil tiger Shere Khan (Larry Yando), is a dramatic muddle. More problematic is the opening, which lacks a curtain-raising musical number a la ”The Circle of Life” to capture the audience’s attention from the start.
Indeed, the first act drags for long, squirm-inducing stretches — until the appearance of Kevin Carolan as the fun-loving bear Baloo, ingeniously outfitted with a turban arranged to suggest protruding ears and barrel hoops around his mid-section to imply greater girth. With his ebullient manner and honey-laden voice on ”Bear Necessities,” Carolan kicks the show almost instantly to life. (One wishes he could make an earlier entrance in the show.) Baloo’s big number is abetted by some zippy choreography by Christopher Gattelli that is soon topped in the Act 1 finale, the raucously swinging show-stopper ”I Wanna Be Like You.” In that spirited number, the commanding Andre De Shields leads a chorus of mischievous apes and squeezes every drop of juice out of the delightfully jazzy tune by Disney tunesmiths Richard and Robert Sherman (the brothers who wrote most of the original movie’s songs).
The creative team’s East-meets-West approach extends to the score, though not all of the musical mashups by arranger Doug Peck succeed. ”Baloo’s Blues” is enriched by the presence of a sitar playing the bass line, but the blend of Indian instruments on the elephant army’s anthem ”Colonel Hathi’s March” proves more jarring than ingenious. And aside from the upbeat finale ”Jungle Rhythm,” a song plucked from 2003’s Jungle Book 2, few of the new songs make much of an impression. (Shere Khan’s why-I’m-a-villain ballad ”Your Unexpected Friend” feels particularly out of place.)
The show works best when Zimmerman brings her stylized theatrical sensibility and India-inflected authenticity to the Disney-tested story beats and musical numbers. But when the show strays too far from the film — or from the Disney impulse toward accessible, toe-tapping entertainment — you can feel the audience drifting off, like Mowgli, deeper into some savage and untamed place. Even in its occasional lulls, though, The Jungle Book conveys a thrilling sense of ambition and wonderment. B