For so many, it's been quite awhile since they've spent time with the great array of songs and assorted animal-folk from the classic telling of "The Jungle Book," written by Rudyard Kipling in 1894 and reintroduced to a new generation by Walt Disney in his 1967 animated feature film of the same name.
Chicago's Goodman Theatre and Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman have a new stage musical adaption of "The Jungle Book," running until Aug. 11, unleashed as a world premiere in the Windy City, beautifully capturing heart and soul, told with paw and claw.
A two and half hour exotic and entertaining vine-covered extravaganza, Zimmerman worked with 85-year-old Richard M. Sherman, one of the creators of many of the most famous and favorite songs from the Disney movie. Together, with a top-talent cast, this duo blends the best of both worlds offering audiences much of what made the animated film so beloved, while adding a fresh and inventive interpretation holding true the traditions of India, the tale's origin.
Besides the favorite film standards like "Bare Necessities," "I Wanna Be Like You," "Trust in Me," and "My Own Home," Act II opens with the Sherman Brothers' tune "Baloo's Blues," which the duo created for a special 1968 sequel Disneyland Records album called "More Jungle Book."
The 10-year-old actor Akash Chopra, who plays the lead Mowgli, is comfortable surrounded by the assorted animal transformed cast, and shines with natural talent. As his striped nemesis, Shere Khan the Tiger, actor Larry Yando rules the stage with just the right amount of wit and cunning characterization.
Sharing the most stage time and capturing every animal quality with expertly crafted performances are Usman Ally as Bagheera the Panther and Kevin Carolan as Baloo the Bear. Ally's every cat-like movement combined with comic timing are perfection. Carolan accomplishes the impossible, with his fantastic turn as Baloo, the character created with the film vocals of late legendary Hollywood Hoosier Phil Harris, who hailed from Linton, Ind.
Some of the most fun comes from the "anything goes" choreography of Christopher Gattelli for the musical number of dancing monkeys for "I Wanna Be Like You," led by the boundless talent and rich vocals from Andre DeShields as King Louie the Orangutan.
My only offerings for fine-tuning is a better focus for the scenes using the beloved elephant herd, characters which need to be larger and more imposing. There is a peacock character in a minor role which for some reason, has been put on painter's stilts to tower over the rest of the cast, a staging device far better served if used for the marching elephants. And while Mara Blumenfeld has designed a collection of beautiful and fantastical animal costumes based in Indian attire, this production also relies on a wonderful band of musicians who frequent the stage and appear in scenes. They are garbed in bright red uniforms with hearts, which distract from the animals, which should be the focus. (They did add some monkey tails to their band uniforms for one scene. But a more neutral garb would play better, or maybe even in the guise of honeybees for backing up the "Bare Necessities" number?)
It's recommended for children age 6 and older and tickets are $30 to $125 at (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org.