Goodman Theatre's The Jungle Book Digs Deep But Still Has Fun

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 5, 2013 3:15PM

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Akash Chopra (Mowgli) and Usman Ally (Bagheera) in Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman’s new musical adaption of The Jungle Book at Goodman Theatre.

The Goodman Theatre's version of The Jungle Book is Disney-approved, yet contains more of the deeper heart of Rudyard Kipling's stories. Mary Zimmerman's adaptation for the stage does an excellent job of bringing enough ebullient vibrancy for both kids and adults while adding in some real notes of deep emotion to keep the production grounded. This musical could have easily gone the way of just turning into a shallow mix song and dance to appease the mass market but a few real chances taken sidestep that danger.

Christopher Gatelli's choreography is kinetic and acrobatic, with enough weirdness within to keep the whole affair feeling wild, actually evoking the animal instincts it's meant to reflect. The music is a true joy, and music director Doug Peck has ingrained traditional Indian instrumentation into a score that merges those elements seamlessly with the more traditional original jazz arrangements. The same through-line carries into the costuming as traditional Indian garb is adapted into the animals' personalities, providing the actors much room to work their wiles on the audience.

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Akash Chopra (Mowgli) and Kevin Carolan (Baloo) in Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman’s new musical adaption of The Jungle Book at Goodman Theatre.
While we enjoyed the show as a whole, there were a few favorite moments that have stuck n our mind long after the houselights went up. The heart and soul of the production are Usman Ally as Bagheera and Kevin Carolan as Baloo, and this actually surprised us since we expected those two characters to be given little room to breath given their importance in the original Disney adaptation. Carolan's Baloo is still lovably goofy, but there's also a bluesman living deep in his performance that lends the big bear a new depth. And Ally's Bagheera is a more empathetic and deeply knowing panther than the one most will expect to see. AndrĂ© De Shields' King Louie is a delight—there's one hilariously knowing nod to the original voice of the character, Louis Prima—but there's also a more sinister glint to his performance that adds a real sense of menace to the proceedings. Set pieces centering on Kaa the snake, the elephants, and the vultures all serve to add goofy humor. However, the biggest surprise to us was Larry Yando's Shere Khan. At the outset we were ready to write the character off as too foot stomping and over the top, but it's his performance later in the piece, especially his departure from the stage, that adds the combination of sadness and deep acceptance that gives the play its center and helps make Mowgli's own exit from the jungle feel even more real.

We walked into The Jungle Book fearing a classic would either be watered down to please the blandest palate or so twisted into unrecognizable abstractions to evoke the avant garde, but what we discovered was that The Goodman Theatre's production is one that should please all parties without pandering to any.

The Jungle Book runs through August 4 UPDATE: The show has been extended through Sunday, August 18. at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn, ticket prices vary