The Jungle Book at Goodman Theatre | Theater review
Mary Zimmerman's Disney adaptation is visually and musically compelling, but needs a greater narrative drive.
A nightshirted little boy in a cramped playroom cracks open a book of stories. Suddenly the door is opened by an eight-foot-tall woman in a feathered Victorian dress and hat…or, wait, is she actually a peacock? The walls and ceiling fall away as the world blooms into a landscape of brightly colored flowers, dancing insects and benevolently howling wolves. Welcome to the jungle, as imagined by Mary Zimmerman via Rudyard Kipling and Walt Disney.
Zimmerman's new adaptation of the 1967 Disney animated film, staged at the Goodman with backing from Disney Theatricals, closely tracks the movie's plotting: Young "man-cub" Mowgli (played at most performances by Akash Chopra) is found alone in the jungle, where panther Bagheera (Usman Ally) becomes his guardian, placing him to be raised by a pack of wolves. When Shere Khan (Larry Yando), the tiger that killed Mowgli's parents, returns for his lost prey, Bagheera tries to return Mowgli to the man-village. The boy resists, instead setting out on episodic, adventurous encounters with bumbling bear Baloo (Kevin Carolan), scat-singing monkey monarch King Louie (André de Shields) and other jungle denizens.
No surprise for a Zimmerman production, the visuals are lush; scenic designer Daniel Ostling makes rich use of color, while Mara Blumenfeld's costumes cleverly remix traditional Indian and imperial English looks in creating her anthropomorphic creatures.
But it's the music that reigns supreme here. Music director Doug Peck works some real alchemy in his new arrangements and orchestrations for numbers like "The Bare Necessities" and "Trust in Me," combining jazzy brass and woodwinds with traditional Indian instruments like sitar and veena for a compelling hybrid sound. Peck and Zimmerman smartly put this music front and center, often bringing costumed pit musicians onstage. Christopher Gattelli's energetic choreography similarly blends jazz and Indian traditions. An inventive number set to Kipling's poem "Road Song of the Bandar-Log," in which the ensemble of monkeys wear taps on their feet and hands, is a highlight.
But Zimmerman hasn't solved all the problems of the material she's inherited. While De Shields makes hay of "I Wanna Be Like You," turning it into a show-stopping Act I closer, those who see racial overtones in a be-bopping orangutan who wishes he could walk and talk like men won't be made any more comfortable. And Zimmerman's major deviation from Disney, in which the final showdown between Mowgli and Shere Khan comes down to the intervention of Hindu deus ex machina, is a misstep—it comes across as a tokenist nod to Kipling's disconnect from traditional India that, in its perfunctory insertion, feels awkwardly appropriatory itself.
More broadly, the work's episodic nature lacks a necessary narrative drive. As it stands, Mowgli's encounters with his surroundings feel too disconnected, like fables without morals, or simply bridges between familiar songs. Zimmerman needs to find a greater urgency to make this Jungle Book a page-turner.