Adaptation of ‘The Jungle Book’ excites audience stays true to original
Published: Monday, September 23, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 23, 2013 02:09
The opening scene of Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of “The Jungle Book” at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company features a small boy in an armchair, by himself, reading. The lighting is soft and blue and the scene is quiet, except for the small chime of classical Indian instruments in the background. A tall figure, dressed in what appears to be Victorian-era clothes mixed with ornaments and peacock feathers, lights up the scene. The peacock takes the boy by the hand and leads him through a door.
From that point on, the show becomes an overwhelming visual and auditory experience. The set is green, intricate and impeccable, and the East India-inspired score is infused with jazz sounds, creating a musical combination that blends together almost perfectly. One could very easily be entertained for the duration of the show simply by watching the set and listening to the songs. By the looks of the audience, many did.
“The Jungle Book” is Zimmerman’s adaptation of the beloved 1967 Disney film, which, in turn, was based on a collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling. It retains many aspects of the film, including a roughly identical plot and characters, and much of the original soundtrack. The story, set in an Indian jungle, tells the tale of a young orphan boy named Mowgli (Akash Chopra/Roni Akurati) and his reluctant journey to the village from the jungle, where he grew up alongside his animal companions. The show is playful and gorgeous while also retaining a certain subtlety.
The plot itself begins almost lethargically when a pack of wolves finds infant Mowgli and concludes that they will raise him instead of eating him, defying the will of Shere Khan (Larry Yando), the tiger. The wolves sing and speak to him in melodramatic, forced Indian accents and argue awkwardly amongst themselves. For a time, the show feels synthetic against the too-bright jungle backdrop and inauthentic Indian dancing.
After these first few minutes, however, we meet Bagheera (Usman Ally), a panther who shines as Mowgli’s guardian and protector. As they leave the wolf scene behind, these two develop a fun, entertaining chemistry that carries on for the rest of the show. By the time they reach the famous elephant scene with Colonel Hathi, the audience was laughing and paying rapt attention.
This scene definitely does not disappoint. The elephants are depicted in military uniforms, marching to a ridiculous beat led by Colonel Hathi (Ed Kross). It is at this point that the show transforms into something truly wonderful. Mowgli’s back-and-forth with Hathi and the littlest elephant is delightful. The music, set and energy shine in this section, which fall second only to the scene when Mowgli encounters King Louie (Andre de Shields) and his band of monkeys. Louie’s attire — his dreadlocks, hubris and outrageous band of monkey henchmen — stays true to the spirit of the film and steals the spotlight away.
By contrast, the much-anticipated scenes with Baloo (Kevin Carloan), Mowgli’s lazy, ant-eating bear mentor, seem tired and slow. Perhaps this is because the two spend time alone on a stage that is usually quite crowded; maybe their interactions are too quiet compared to the lively, bustling elephant and monkey scenes. Regardless, Carloan plays Baloo very well. Musically, “Bear Necessities” is skillfully done, but it lacks the fun and vigor that one may expect from the film.
The anthropomorphism of the characters is both an advantage and a disadvantage for the show. While it certainly helps in the portrayal of Kaa the snake (Thomas Derrah) and King Louie, it seems awkward in Shere Khan, who, for the majority of the show, simply isn’t that scary. However, the presence of these anthropomorphized animals as dancers and musicians remains interesting to watch. Overall, the show is a glittery, colorful and wonderfully loud experience, albeit with some inconsistent pacing. The Boston show has already been extended once — for good reason — and officially ends Oct. 20. It’s cer tainly worth the trip out to the Huntington, for the young and young-at-heart alike.