Tonight is the big opening night for the world stage premiere of the new musical "The Jungle Book."
Chicago's Goodman Theatre has been hard at work for the past year preparing for the unveiling of this much anticipated production.
As Chicago actor Larry Yando mentioned in the cover story interview I wrote for last Friday's editions, he's cast as the big cat bad guy, Shere Kahn, the tiger, who rules the trails of the jungles of India in the tales written by author Rudyard Kipling.
On June 21, the previews began for "The Jungle Book," starring Yando and a cast of assorted talents comprising a 31-member company, including a 12-member band. The show was just granted a second extension through Aug. 11.
Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman was given the mission to reimagine the tale, which she's based both on Walt Disney's 1967 animated hit, with the favorite songs, and heavily drawn from Kipling's 1894 collection of stories set in the Indian jungle. The production features original Indian-inspired music and dance, and also showcases beautiful Indian costumes.
Much is riding on this time for testing the new stage telling of the tale before audiences, to help decide what comes next.
If you noticed the language I included in my Friday story, Disney is being cautiously optimistic, with the following wording: "'The Jungle Book' is produced by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions, which proudly supports Zimmerman's development of this title, providing financial support, creative consultation and access to song material, and is also produced in association with Huntington Theatre Company, where it will play Sept. 7 to Oct. 6, 2013."
To date, Disney stage productions such as "Beauty and the Beast" (1994) and "The Lion King" (1997) have been big hits, while "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1999), "Tarzan" (2006) and "The Little Mermaid" (2008) didn't fare as well.
As I reminded Yando during our interview, this isn't the first time Walt Disney's "The Jungle Book" has been licensed for the stage. When I was in sixth grade in spring 1982, our school play was a full production of "Walt Disney's The Jungle Book," including all of the songs from the movie. (While I wanted the mean tiger role now being played by Yando, I was cast instead as Kaa the Snake, which was played in puppet-form.)
My other "Jungle Book" memory from my youth is the Kipling tale "Rikki Tikki Tavi," about a brave mongoose protecting a family against snakes and also set in India.
I especially enjoyed the animated TV special that aired in May 1975 done by Bugs Bunny animator Chuck Jones and narrated by Orson Welles. Not as popular as "The Jungle Book," "Rikki Tikki Tavi" is much darker. The mongoose does battle with a pair of cobras Nag and Nagaina, with the latter worried about laying her eggs in the melon patch of the garden so they are not destroyed, knowing that this mongoose has already killed their cousin Karait, a small fast brown "dust snake" that lived along the garden path.