A small boy in a nightshirt stands in a confined Victorian box of a room. When he settles into a big chair and opens his book, a beautiful moment of stagecraft represents the wonder of reading: the imagination expands and enters a new world.
That world is in Goodman Theatre’s production of The Jungle Book, and an exotic and colorful world it is. The new musical is inspired by the animated Disney film and adapted by Mary Zimmerman from the original short stories of Rudyard Kipling.
We enter the world of Mowgli, an orphaned boy, found, like Moses, in a basket, and raised, like Romulus and Remus, by wolves. The musical takes Mowgli on a journey through the jungle, meeting animals, both friends and foes, on his way to deciding whether he belongs in the world of animals or humans.
Zimmerman and her creative team ground the story more firmly (and very beautifully, too) in Indian culture than the film does, and the Indian-influenced costumes, music, movement, and dance are some of the highlights of the show.
The set, by Daniel Osting, fills the stage with colorful overgrown foliage, more garden-like than jungle. Sliding wings, an elaborate Indian divan that floats in and out above the stage, and a set piece that moves up and down like an elevator, bringing in a musician or an Indian god, add variety, movement, and fun.
Filling the stage are an energetic and engaged cast demonstrating versatility and nuance in their representations of various animals, marching as elephants, flitting as butterflies, screeching as unruly monkeys, and delighting the audience as a row of buzzards on a branch.
The opening scene with the wolves who find Mowgli is especially effective. The wolf pack discussion about whether or not to make a snack of toddler Mowgli (a delightful puppet in this scene) is funny, with their costumes adding to the humor. A beautiful Indian-sounding lullaby (by Terry Gilkyson) sung by Anjali Bhimani as Raksha (Mother Wolf) and Nehal Joshi as Rama (Father Wolf), is one of the evening’s loveliest moments. Bhimani later makes an amusingly out-of-control monkey.
Usman Ally brings authority and elegance to his role of Bagheera, the black panther who is Mogli’s mentor and protector, and Kevin Carolan offers an appealing warmth as Baloo, the sloth bear.
Kudos to costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, whose costumes are clever in the way they suggest animals and the way they make the small ensemble look like a much bigger cast. The wolf costumes with fur collars and amusingly active tails, Bagheera’s beautiful black costume, as formal as a maharajah’s and with a panther’s majesty and elegance, the vultures’ Victorian undertaker look, with hunched shoulders and black top hats, finished with a vulturish collar of white feathers: fabulous. Only Baloo the bear’s costume seems out of place. While it suggests the bear’s barrel chest, its bare bones, so to speak, miss the Indian touch, except for the fun brown turban with bear ears.
If you like the songs in the Disney film, you’ll enjoy production numbers with, for instance, marching elephants and hyperactive monkeys, in a variety of musical styles from jazz and blues to Dixieland and swing. But Doug Peck, music director, has arranged and orchestrated the original Richard and Robert Sherman songs into a fusion of jazz and Indian music, played by an orchestra of six jazz musicians and six Indian musicians playing traditional instruments.
Hema Rajagopolan, artistic director of the Natya Dance Theatre in Chicago, worked with choreographer Christopher Gattelli as advisor on Indian dance.
Photos: Liz Lauren
The Jungle Book
June 21 - August 11, 2013
170 N Dearborn
Chicago IL 60601
Box Office Hours
Group Sales 312.443.3820
Open 12noon – 5pm daily
On days with an evening performance, the Box Office is available by phone until one hour prior to curtain time and the walk-up window is open one half-hour after curtain time.