The Jungle Book, Goodman Theatre, Chicago – review

One hundred and nineteen years after its publication, Kipling’s The Jungle Book is still having a lively time of it. Comic-book adaptations proliferate, including several from Marvel, and recent stage versions include one premiered in Budapest that has been popular in the Hungarian provinces. So there was no pressure on the Goodman Theatre’s just-opened The Jungle Book to be the last word.

One hoped, however, that this musically rich, visually splendid production, adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, would be consistently engaging. Alas, not quite. The first act, for example, which commences with a Victorian lad cracking open a book, does not really spring to life until the appearance of Kevin Carolan as the bear Baloo. He wears a turban, one of the marvellous Indian accents devised by the costumer, Mara Blumenfeld.

Even more pronounced Indian beats come from the music director, Doug Peck, who blends instruments such as sitar and veena with the jazzy woodwinds and brass familiar to those who recall the sound from the 1967 animated Disney movie. Based primarily on that film, the Goodman production, which travels to Boston’s Huntington Theatre in the autumn, quite faithfully follows the Disney plotting, even though Disney did not produce Zimmerman’s version (it provided funding).

Young “man-cub” Mowgli (Akash Chopra at most performances) is discovered abandoned in the jungle. The panther, Bagheera, portrayed by the sleek Usman Ally, becomes his guardian, farming him out to a pack of wolves for rearing. Shere Khan, the tiger that killed Mowgli’s parents, returns to seek the prey he missed, spurring Mowgli to set out on a series of picaresque adventures with Baloo and other residents of the jungle.

Such a structure is by nature higgledy-piggledy, but Zimmerman doesn’t help by taking her time with the first-act exposition. What’s more, even though many of the numbers contain rather ingenious choreography by Christopher Gattelli, there is an almost defiant inclination to avoid making them too Broadway. This is not the next Lion King – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

My children-graced audience, meanwhile, had other ideas. You could feel the many fidgeters snap to attention with the delirious Act One finale, “I Wanna Be Like You”, led by the monkey monarch King Louie, given pizzazz by André DeShields. A second-act number or two with similar exuberance, plus some story straightening, could spell ka-ching for a commercial producer. As it stands, The Jungle Book contains ample artistry and moderate entertainment.

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