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The Music Helps Lift An Earth-Bound 'Jungle Book'

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BOSTON – It’s best, as “The Jungle Book” begins at the Huntington Theatre Company, to remind yourself that this adaptation of the Disney movie and the Rudyard Kipling book is indeed a musical. When Doug Peck’s ravishing orchestration of what was already toe-tapping source material from the movie comes to the fore the results are everything you hoped for.

Peck infuses the music of various composers, notably Richard and Robert Sherman and Terry Gilkyson, with such American swing-era energy and Indian raga melodiousness that you feel like you’re in some wonderful hybrid of Benny Goodman’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert, Ravi Shankar sitting in with George Harrison, and a sequel to “On the Town” set in the jungle.

When the music stops, “The Jungle Book” is another story. It’s cute, and often clever, but I rarely felt captivated by Mowgli’s journey from man-cub to boy. It tells the story well enough — the framing device is excellent — but not with the panache that’s associated with the work of Mary Zimmerman, whose “Candide” set box office records at the Huntington a couple of years ago.

I should admit I wasn’t as enamored of “Candide” as others were, though that had more to do with the impossibility of staging that musical despite the glorious score. That’s not the problem with “The Jungle Book,” a coming of age (in the jungle) story not all that different from “The Lion King” except for the human central character, played by Akash Chopra with wide-eyed good humor. (He alternates with Roni Akurati.)

Timothy Wilson and Akash Chopra encircled by a snake manipulated by Thomas Derrah in "The Jungle Book." (Liz Lauren)
Timothy Wilson and Akash Chopra encircled by a snake manipulated by Thomas Derrah in "The Jungle Book." (Liz Lauren)

Zimmerman obviously chose a different path than Julie Taymor in “The Lion King.” The portrayals of the animals are not elaborate except for Thomas Derrah’s talented manipulation of the snake, Kaa. The jungle flora is represented by Daniel Ostling’s cardboard set design (Zimmerman is working with most of the “Candide” design team), and the approach throughout is more earthy than mystical, despite the denouement that switches totally unconvincingly from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Siddhartha.”

Even with that touch “The Jungle Book” feels more earth-bound than earthy. The stagecraft couldn’t be more basic — Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is almost non-existent; Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, along with the set design, are bland; there is not much magic to be found here until the final, heart-rending scene.

The acting in this Huntington-Goodman Theatre (Chicago) coproduction also seems overly subdued, with a few exceptions. In addition to Derrah, Kevin Carolan’s Baloo the bear is a hoot, as is André De Shields' King Louie the orangutan, but there’s not a lot of charisma elsewhere onstage. Those three make the characters their own, Derrah with the delightful combination of mischievousness and menace local audiences have seen for decades; Carolan channeling his inner Bob Hope; and De Shields quoting everyone from Louis Prima to Louis Armstrong.

Akash Chopra and Kevin Carolan as Baloo the bear in "The Jungle Book." (Liz Lauren)
Akash Chopra and Kevin Carolan as Baloo the bear in "The Jungle Book." (Liz Lauren)

Similarly, Peck takes ownership of the score, or at least he and Zimmerman bring an added theatricality to it. They’re Ellingtonian emcees, shining the spotlight on one great horn and string player after another as the musicians come up from the pit or down from the rafters. These are the moments when “The Jungle Book” comes fully alive.

Meanwhile the herd of elephants (British soldiers and spouses) with big ears are a bore and other animals are, again, not much more than cute and clever. Larry Yando seems to be drawing on Cyril Ritchard’s Captain Hook for his bad-guy Shere Khan the tiger but without much humor or menace. Most of the characters are cartoonish without being, sorry, animated.

From what I’ve seen of Zimmerman’s work — “Metamorphoses” and “Akhnaten” in addition to “Candide” — she has always seemed to dig for artful storytelling. These are works that say something about the world we live in. In “The Jungle Book” she seems to be settling for work that’s an escape from the world we live in.

Not that the enthralled opening night audience was complaining and the show keeps getting extended, now till Oct. 20. But Zimmerman, the Huntington and the Goodman have always been capable of more than crowd-pleasing entertainment. This “Jungle” needs more rumble.More on "The Jungle Book"

On Point talks to Richard Sherman

Here's director Mary Zimmerman talking about the production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago:

And Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois on the Boston production:

The Huntington's video montage:

A reminder of the Disney movie:

This program aired on September 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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