‘Jungle Book’ Boogies at the Huntington (Four Stars)

‘The
Jungle Book’, Huntington Theatre Company at the BU Theatre, Avenue of
the Arts, Boston, through Oct. 20. 

By Kevin Fennessy

        As
the theatre curtain rises, a boy is curled up in a chair in a drab
Victorian setting.  Suddenly the door slowly opens and golden light
pours in.  First an extended arm appears, then the beautiful, giant-tall
woman bends to fit under the doorway, her train made of peacock
feathers.  This Peacock guides the boy through the doorway into the
Jungle of his (and Rudyard Kipling and director/adapter Mary
Zimmerman’s) imagination. In a burst of colorful jungle-sized panels of
flowers vines and jungle creatures, the Huntington Theatre Company opens
its 32nd Season at the BU Theatre on Huntington Ave with ‘THE
JUNGLE BOOK’. This is a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman
Theatre Company, with whom, two seasons ago, the Huntington produced the
award-winning production of Candide, also adapted and directed by
Zimmerman.

‘THE
JUNGLE BOOK’ is adapted from both the 1967 Disney
animated musical film and its source material, Rudyard Kipling’s “The
Jungle Book”. Written in 1893, it’s a collection of stories about the ‘man cub’ Mowgli, a baby found in the jungle and saved from the Tiger,
Shere Khan, by wolves who raise him as their own.  The stories follow
Mowgli’s coming-of-age as he leaves the wolf pack and goes off into the
world.

And
what a world this jungle is, with it’s nurturing wolves, harmonizing
vutures, primates of all sizes, stalking panthers, tigers and bears.  In
his travels, Mowgli is pursued by the evil Shere Khan the Tiger, and
captured by a band of monkeys lead by an orangutan, King Louie, all
seeking the Red Flower possessed by Man: Fire. 

The
show unfolds in a series of vignettes, following Mowgli’s adventures.
But this is not a mere stage adaptation of the movie. Director Mary
Zimmerman has incorporated the songs and colors of Indian art, combining
elements of classical Indian dance and music, with the collaboration of
composer Richard M. Sherman, who, with his late brother Robert B.
Sherman, composed the songs written for thefilm. The score is an amalgam
of songs from the movie and others from the Sherman Brothers’ trunk.
(The score also contains songs by Terry Gilkyson, who wrote the classic
Disney tune “The Bear Necessities”,and a new song, Jungle Rythym, by
Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowski). The result is a new spin on the
familiar favorites, a jazzy score spiced with the sounds of the sitar,
veena, dumbek and other Indian instruments.

The
songs from the Disney film are newly arranged by Music Director Doug
Peck, who arranged the entire score and conducts as well. The
choreography. by Christopher Gattelli, is the perfect compliment to the
score,  blending elements of traditional Broadway jazz and tap with
Indian dance, collaborating with Indian dance consultant Hema
Rajagopolan, Artistic Director of Chicago’s Natya Dance Theatre.  

Kevin
Carolan’s Baloo The Bear and Akash Chopra’s Mowgli sing  “The Bare
Necessities”, a song in which Baloo describes his philosophy (“the bare
necessities of life will come to you”) and, while harmonizing, we see
the friendship and bond develop between Baloo and Mowgli. The first
act ends with an all out, rousing production of “I Wanna Be Like
You”, performed by the legendary Andre DeShields as King Louie,
the Orangutan, with his chorus of monkeys.  De Shields begins the
number with a nod to the character’s inspiration, doing a killer
impression of Louie Armstrong, and sings, scats, and be-bops his way
through as the “King of the Swingers”. The monkey chorus breaks into
full swing dance mode, DeShields hits a note and sustains it almost
longer than humanly possible, there’s an air of abandon in the
arrangement, and it’s a buoyant end to Act One.

But
one of my favorite numbers is the second act’s Trust In Me,
hypnotically hissed and sung by Tommy Derrah as the evil snake, Kaa.
Boston audiences have known Tommy’s work for over two decades, with the
ART, here at the Huntington and at SpeakEasy and other companies
around town, and have heard him sing often.  Here his voice is even
richer, deeper, and more grounded, and he’s clearly having a great time
(watch for his cameo appearances, especially as one of King Louie’s
entourage).

Mowgli
is played by Akash Chopra, a child actor who embodies the purejoy of
childhood wonder, exploration, discovery and adventure.  

The closing number, Jungle Fever, brings back the entire
company, incorporating reprises of some of the best numbers, thus
serving as a rollicking curtain call.  The show has been extended twice,
once before it even opened, and now again, closing Oct. 20.  Don’t miss
it. 

For more  info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org

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