Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Oh-ee-Oh-ee-Oh: 'The Jungle Book' Musical Offers a Lot to Love -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Jungle Book
a world premiere musical based on
the Disney animated film and the
stories by Rudyard Kipling
Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 11

Although its source material is pretty famous, I went into the new Jungle Book musical without having read Rudyard Kipling's stories or seen the 1967 Disney film adaptation. 

If there was music I was supposed to be familiar with--beyond the "The Bare Necessities"--I wasn't. 

While I respect director Mary Zimmerman's high regard in theatrical circles, and enjoyed her Metamorphoses, I didn't much care for her take on the musical Candide at the Goodman. 

And the review from the local critic I most read, the Tribune's Chris Jones, was rather lukewarm, with a 2-1/2 star rating out of 4. 

Nonetheless, I found The Jungle Book to be a joy to watch--thanks in large part to a luscious set designed by Daniel Ostling--and, a few quibbles aside, rather terrific throughout. 

Centering around a boy named Mowgli (Akash Chopra), who is raised in the jungle by animals--embodied as anthromorphic beings--this Jungle Book isn't structured as a traditional Broadway musical, and while there is wonderful costuming by Mara Blumenfeld, it isn't quite as exquisite as The Lion King onstage. 

But while I felt there were a few spots where songs were needed but not delivered--most here came from
the Disney movie score by Richard & Robert Sherman--as opposed to what I gathered from Jones' review, there are several high-powered musical numbers given lavish productions by Zimmerman and choreographer Christopher Gattelli.

For whatever reason, there is no songlist in the program, so I can't provide many titles, but along with a fun take on "The Bare Necessities," led by Baloo the bear (Kevin Carolan), highlights included "Colonel Hathi's March," sung by an imaginatively-personified elephant herd, and first act closer "I Wanna Be Like You," delivered by King Louie (Andre De Shields) and his gang of monkeys.

With the latter two composed by the Sherman brothers, who wrote Mary Poppins and other Disney faves--"The Bare Necessities," also from the film, is by Terry Gilkyson, an American folk singer--the songs that are presented are melodically strong even on a first listen. In other words, this isn't just a visual feast, but a satisfying musical for the most part, even if (especially in the first act) a couple newly written songs could be beneficial for the musical pacing, including perhaps one along the lines of "We Are All Worth Remembering" sung by one of the elephants.

10-year-old Akash Chopra as Mowgli is rather impressive in being onstage for nearly the entire show, but understandably doesn't have the dramatic range to impart any overt sense of personal growth from beginning to end. So the idea of Mowgli's jungle adventure being a metaphorical rite of passage is somewhat softly conveyed. (I have to assume bringing in an older Mowgli later in the show was considered and dismissed, but it would seem to have some merit.)

But in terms of what's wrong with this world premiere production, that's about it: a couple more songs could help, a terrific kid actor isn't quite Brando and the show isn't as good as The Lion King or some other legendary musicals.

Yet Zimmerman--who also penned the musical's book--and her collaborators (including musical director Doug Peck), have created a lavish new work that should do well when it presumably moves to Broadway.

Perhaps it's better in its overall theatricality than as a crackerjack musical that will sustain itself beyond the outstanding original production values contributed to by a collaboration with Disney, but all 120 minutes I saw at the Goodman kept me engaged, with Ostling's buoyant floral backdrop and vibrant flooring worth the price of admission in itself (at least at subscriber rates).

And along with the East Indian flavoring of musical score and a good deal of the show's gestalt, the performances are tremendously pleasing.

Particularly firs-rate are Carolan (as Baloo), De Shields (both King Louie and Akela), Larry Yando (Shere Khan, the tiger who has his fangs set on Mowgli) and Usman Ally, who like he was recently in Oklahoma at the Lyric Opera, is wonderful here as Bagheera, a panther who serves as Mowgli's primary protector.

Most in the audience on Sunday night--including many children--seemed to greatly enjoy The Jungle Book, even if it's a bit different from the Goodman's normal fare. Midway through, I was gauging it at @@@@ (out of 5), but by the end, the ebullient show convinced me that another 1/2@ was in order.

Tickets seem to be selling well, with sparse selection on a few dates I just checked. So not only may it be hard to get a ticket, it can be rather expensive (a single prime ticket to some performances costs nearly as much as my 5-show Sunday night subscription). But there looks to be decent availability in August, and if you are willing to wait until the day of show, available seats can be had for half price or less through Goodman's discount offers.

No matter what age you are, if you love musical theater, I suggest you try to get to this. It's a pretty impressive show to be bowing in Chicago, which seems to quite justly be bestowing a warm Welcome to The Jungle Book.

Given my title of this post, I felt compelled to look up this song; pretty good version from just a month ago. 

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