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

By Robert Simonson
July 5, 2013

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."

Bette Midler
Photo by Richard Termine
Time Out Chicago, meanwhile, pointed out that the difficulties inherent to the film remain in place, saying, "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."

***

John Logan's I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, the one-woman play starring award-winning singer and actress Bette Midler that played its final performance June 30 at the Booth Theatre, may be headed to Los Angeles.

Midler told The New York Times, "We're in talks to bring it to L.A., which would be fun, because it'd be near my house and Sue's house."

Chuck Cooper in The Choir Boy.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Midler also quashed rumors that she might perform the title role in Mame. "I always have Mame in the back of my mind, and people do mention it, but I don't think I have eight shows in me," she said. "I'm too old. I think people don't understand how hard this is."

***

Manhattan Theatre Club has a couple of popular hits on its hands.

The nonprofit announced extensions of The Explorers Club and Choir Boy, both of which currently play its Off-Broadway space at City Center.

The Explorers Club, set in 1879 London is a prestigious explorers club, has been extended by two weeks. Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, a play with gospel music set in a prep school for African-American boys, which only opened on July 2, has been extended by two weeks. Performances for both show will run through Aug. 4.

***

Atlanta's Theater of the Stars, the non-profit Georgia company that has been in business for 60 seasons, revealed that it is in danger of closing its doors due to financial hardships.

A message from TOTS producer Christopher B. Manos on the company's official website stated that the organization was facing a critical juncture and would need to raise an immediate $500,000 by July 12 or the organization would cease operations and shut its doors.

Immediate funding will allow TOTS to stage the upcoming productions of Anything Goes and Dreamgirls (with Jennifer Holliday), as well as address the company's operating expenses.

An additional $500,000 must be raised by Aug. 30 in order to continue with the company's previously announced season, which is scheduled to continue later this year with Disney's The Little Mermaid, Stomp and Cats. TOTS has already canceled its July production of The Buddy Holly Story.