PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, June 29-July 5: The Jungle Book Premieres, The Explorers Club and Choir Boy Extend

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05 Jul 2013

Akash Chopra
Akash Chopra
Photo by Liz Lauren

The biggest opening of the week was in Chicago, where the world premiere of The Jungle Book was officially unveiled at the Goodman Theatre July 1 following previews that began June 21. Originally scheduled to play through Aug. 4, performances were recently extended to Aug. 11. The production will then transfer to Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, running Sept. 7-Oct. 6, before presumably moving to New York. 

The musical is based on English author Rudyard Kipling's 1893 collection of stories set in the Indian jungle and Walt Disney's 1967 animated film inspired by them, and is directed by Mary Zimmerman. Kipling, with his "white man's burden" colonialist view of the world, is not an author whose works have worn well in the politically correct world of recent decades, and Disney's film,though beloved by many, has become freighted with accusations of racism. For these reasons as more, the new Zimmerman musical has been followed with curiosity by theatre world observers.

The cast is led by ten-year-old Akash Chopra as Mowgli, the young "man-cub" lost in the jungle; Usman Ally as Bagheera, the wise old panther who is serious about the rules of life and the laws of the jungle; Anjali Bhimani as Raksha, the warm, fawning Mother Wolf; Kevin Carolan as Baloo the bear, the carefree and irresponsible tutor to Mowgli; Thomas Derrah as Kaa, the sly-but-charming python; Andre De Shields as King Louie, the ambitious, comic, orangutan; and Larry Yando as Shere Khan, the tiger who hates mankind. The show uses songs created by Richard and Robert Sherman for the film.

The news from the critics was largely good.

The Chicago Tribune, which was the most underwhelmed, called it "a classy, sophisticated, visually beautiful but cool-to-the-touch affair that solves many of the inherent challenges with this episodic material but trips up when it comes to its emotional potential and its narrative trajectory." The Chicago Sun-Times was more sanguine, saying, "this ever-surprising, winningly whimsical show reinvents the tale of a child raised by animals (and reluctantly sent home to join his own species) in ways that live musical theater can do. Entirely fresh and playful, the show captures the spirit of Indian culture in authentic yet always accessible ways. It zestily grabs hold of the beat of a British military march. And it flies fearlessly into Lindy Hop mode, with a bit of scatting here, and the pulse of an Indian raga there."

Variety said the collaboration between director and source "results in a colorful, musically vibrant, family-friendly show, surprisingly faithful to the film but with a superb, enriched book that’s recognizable as both Disney and Zimmerman," adding that, "While set in the jungle, this is no Lion King: The show is lovely but not a transcendent spectacle.  It’s also not the acrobatically bouncy but unrefined Tarzan.  Zimmerman’s touch is elegant and delicate, bringing out some of Kipling’s original story content to enrich the characters with material that is particularly attuned to his verse."


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