Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

The Jungle Book
Huntington Theatre Company

Also see Nancy's review of Tribes

André De Shields, Akash Chopra and Ensemble
A lush and colorful world, evocative of the sights and sounds of India, has sprung up on the stage at the Huntington Theatre Company. Tony Award-winner Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of The Jungle Book, based on Rudyard Kipling's 1893 collection of stories and Walt Disney's 1967 animated film, tells the tale of the little orphan boy Mowgli coming of age in the jungle, surrounded by a variety of anthropomorphic animals who love him like their son or see him as their next meal. The underlying darkness is outshined by the power of love and the joyful, spirited musical score.

Merging seven songs by Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman and Terry Gilkyson from the movie with additional music and lyrics by Lorraine Feather, Paul Grabowsky, and Richard M. Sherman, the music is an unusual mash-up of Bourbon Street and Bollywood. Music Director and Orchestrator Doug Peck has twelve musicians in the pit (and sometimes on the stage) playing instruments ranging from traditional brass and woodwinds to harmonium, sitar, veena, and a variety of members of the percussion family, such as ghattam, dholak, and dumbek. Strangely, the combination works, especially to create unique sounds and themes for each of the animals, in the style of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," and the musical numbers offer the most energetic and enchanting moments in the show.

Which raises the question of why there seems to be a scarcity of songs in The Jungle Book and why one of the lead characters, the panther Bagheera (Usman Ally), doesn't have one. Mowgli (Akash Chopra) doesn't have a song of his own, either, but he does add his voice to Baloo's (Kevin Carolan) in "The Bare Necessities" (the tune you'll be singing on the way out of the theater) and is involved in the monkeyshines with the orangutan King Louie (André De Shields) and his barrel of simians in "I Wanna Be Like You," the barnburner at the end of act one. Baloo is the only character to have a second song, the gritty and sorrowful "Baloo's Blues," which has a "Peter Gunn" vibe and shows off the rich timbre of Carolan's voice.

Zimmerman has affirmed in interviews that this is an unconventional musical by Broadway standards, eschewing a big opening number and not being tied down to a typical blueprint, preferring to think of The Jungle Book as a play with music. However, the book portions often plod along with the subtlety of elephants, despite the best efforts of a strong core of actors. Ally and Carolan are the sturdy pillars who continually draw our attention and engage the audience. Bagheera is Mowgli's guardian angel, always nearby when needed and truly caring about the "man-cub" as he attempts to squire him away from the jungle to the man village to live with his own species. The lithe Ally uses his physical skills to great advantage, often seeming to appear out of nowhere. Baloo is the goofy uncle type, more brawn than brains, but Carolan shows that he is all heart as he wins Mowgli's and ours.

On opening night, Chopra was in the spotlight in the role he shares with Roni Akurati. He displays great stage presence and plays well with others, but needs to further hone his acting chops. Of course, no Disney tale succeeds without a fearsome villain or two and The Jungle Book is no exception. Larry Yando (Candide at the Huntington) is menacing, if not entirely terrifying, as Shere Khan, the King of the jungle who is, in this case, a tiger. Boston's own Thomas Derrah plays the slithering, hypnotic snake Kaa who vies with Khan to make a meal out of Mowgli. Derrah also joins the King Louie bunch and makes a monkey of himself sitting on the edge of the stage consuming a banana while some of the others are tap dancing their tails off. [On opening night, the actor sustained a bump on the head as Kaa emerged from a trap door, but played out the scene with blood trickling down his face in a classic example of "the show must go on."]

De Shields first appears as the dignified elder statesman of the wolf clan who allows the man-cub to be raised by the pack (a doll that is cleverly and realistically manipulated by the wolf actors stands in as baby Mowgli) before letting his hair down as the colorful King Louie. Ed Kross harrumphs appropriately as Colonel Hathi and leads the colorful, thundering elephant parade with Geoff Packard (Candide) as his second in command. Anjali Bhimani transforms from the sweetly cooing mother wolf to the Colonel's young son. Costume Designer Mara Blumenfeld distinguishes the pachyderms with big grey ears and British-style military uniforms, and employs a vast array of colors and textures to dress the rest of the animals and insects and convey the aura of the assorted species.

The rest of the ensemble rises to the challenge of playing wolves, butterflies, and vultures, capturing the essence of their movements and attitudes. Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling visually creates their diverse habitats, and Lighting Designer T.J. Gerckens distinguishes day from night, suggests looming danger, and collaborates with Sound Designers Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli and André J. Pluess to provide thunder and lightning. At times, the sound mix makes it difficult to discern the lyrics, especially when the musicians are on the stage.

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli hits one home run ("I Wanna Be Like You"), but his most intriguing piece involves black clad dancers and colored balls for Kaa's hypnotic "Trust in Me." Zimmerman's staging is inventive, including the use of aerial devices, and there's always something going on to catch your eye and draw your attention. Together with the design team, she is putting across her unconventional vision for the show with lush sights and multi-textured sounds. Most certainly, The Jungle Book is an entertaining visual and aural feast, but with a libretto that is meager by comparison.

The Jungle Book has been extended through October 20 at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or Based on the Disney Animated Film and the Stories of Rudyard Kipling; Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; Additional Music and Lyrics by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowsky, Terry Gilkyson, and Richard M. Sherman; Book and Direction by Mary Zimmerman; Choreography, Christopher Gattelli; Music Orchestration, Supervision, Adaptation and Arrangement, Doug Peck; Scenic Design, Daniel Ostling; Costume Design, Mara Blumenfeld; Lighting Design, T.J. Gerckens; Sound Design, Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli, André J. Pluess; Production Stage Manager, M. William Shiner; Stage Managers, Katie Most, Jeremiah Mullane.

Cast (in order of appearance): Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Alka Nayyar, André De Shields, Timothy Wilson, Victor Wisehart, Nebi Berhane, Govind Kumar, Nehal Joshi, Usman Ally, Anjali Bhimani, Larry Yando, Monique Haley, Jeremy Duvall, Roni Akurati, Akash chopra, Thomas Derrah, Ed Kross, Geoff Packard, Kevin Carolan, Glory Curda

Photo: Liz Lauren

- Nancy Grossman

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