Chicago actor Larry Yando is ready to earn his stripes on the stage.
He spent more than a year playing the scheming African lion Scar in the Tony-award winning Broadway musical "Disney's The Lion King," including the two-month 2005 sit-down run in Chicago.
And now, he's cast as Disney's other most famous 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.
Last Friday, Goodman Theatre in Chicago began previews for their world premiere stage run of "The Jungle Book," starring Yando and a cast of assorted talents comprising a 31-member company, including a 12-member band. The opening night is Monday and audiences and critics alike are awaiting this new stage safari, which has already been granted a second extension week just added for a run now through Aug. 11.
Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman is the guide for this safari and the mind given the mission to reimagine the tale, which she's based both on Walt Disney's 1967 animated hit, which showcased the star vocal talents of Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton and Louis Prima and heavily drawn from Kipling's 1894 collection of stories set in the Indian jungle. The production features original Indian-inspired music and dance, while also showcases beautiful Indian costumes to transform the cast into their familiar characters for this wholly original new work for the stage.
It's 10-year-old Akash Chopra, who hails from Chicago, playing the young "man cub" Mowgli, who comes of age with the help of singing and dancing jungle animals. (Joining him in the role at select performances is Roni Akurati, who most recently appeared at the Goodman as Tiny Tim in the 2011 production of "A Christmas Carol.")
"This has been a fascinating journey for me, because I feel like I've been a part of this process for creating a new work, right from the very beginning," Yando said, during a break in his rehearsals last week.
The "beginning," as Yando refers to in the process of creating this new show, began with two workshop readings of earlier versions of the script more than a year ago, before he was cast in the production six months ago.
"This has been so different and wonderful, since I've been allowed to help with molding my character Shere Khan. When I joined the cast of 'Lion King,' someone had already created that role for the stage and then I just stepped in for the national tour. What's been so different for me as an actor for this project is even the contract process is so different. When I signed my contract, unlike when you audition and are cast for existing shows, you know exactly what your part with be and how many lines and stage time you'll have. When it's a new show that's constantly changing and being developed, you don't really know what the final result will be."
He said Zimmerman's new book for the Goodman premiere blends the humor and spirit of Disney's iconic film with Kipling's poetry, while balancing the jubilant songs from the film with the universal themes about the loss of childhood innocence.
"I want the audience to experience the joys of the music of the Disney film and of a world where you are one with nature and the animals, even with its dangers and troubles, and the recognition that you can't stay there," said Zimmerman, talking about the resulting stage score containing seven songs from the film, plus never-before-heard pieces from the Academy and Grammy Award winners Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman.
In the original 1967 Disney film, English stage and screen star George Sanders provided the voice of Shere Khan, while in the 1994 jungle counterpart "The Lion King," British actor Jeremy Irons voiced Scar, prompting Yando to point out the English accent connection to Disney's villainous cats.
"I don't think it's so much that it's purposely an English connection, but that the two characters use the similar ornate language," Yando said.
To balance the bad Yando brings to the stage, actors are cast as growling good guys Kevin Carolan as Baloo the Bear and Usman Ally as Bagheera the Black Panther.
"Mary has her own vision and is able to see things through a prism," Yando said.
"With the wonderful text and score to build on, what was once a blank canvas has become something very special, unique and new for the stage."