Chicago Theater Review: THE JUNGLE BOOK (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 4, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Not one of the great animations to grace the Disney studio, 1967’s The Jungle Book was certainly a product of its time. Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of quasi-folk tales set in the rain forests of India became a very Americanized adventure romp, Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.more like the Uncle Remus-inspired Song of the South (1946) than the later, more completely imagined and consistently stylized The Lion King (1994). Still, there was a likeability factor bolstered by the songs of the Sherman brothers (of Mary Poppins fame). The one hit song – the Academy Award-nominated “Bare Necessities” – was the one remaining tune by folk singer Terry Gilkyson, whose other songs – and the original book by Bill Peet (101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone) – were deemed too dark by Disney, and discarded. Peet’s holdover contribution was the creation of orangutan King Louie, which allowed for the film’s second most popular song, “I Wanna Be Like You.”

Given the limitations of the movie’s episodic nature, it was not inevitable that, like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book be given a third dimension by adapting it for the stage. And yet, 46 years later, Mowgli, the “wild child” who learns the Bandar-Log (or law of the jungle) from a bumptious bear Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.named Baloo and a parental panther named Bagheera, has, as Pinocchio did from wood, been turned from film to flesh.

In a joint venture with Huntington Theatre, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre has resuscitated the cartoon, with extra (but not special) songs by the Shermans, Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowsky and Gilkyson. The enterprise has fallen into the hands of magical realist Mary Zimmerman, a gifted dabbler in pretty pictures, sumptuous processions, sarcastically glib and flippant dialogue, and cross-cultural megamixes.

If Kipling’s derivative but delightful menagerie — animals that parodied human eccentricities and extremes — was commodified, commercialized, and condescended to by the Disney original, adaptor/director Zimmerman drives The Jungle Book off her own personal cliff. The result is a hodgepodge of Indian iconography and Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.American branding (Dixieland sax solos wailed by Hindu avatars).

Worse, Kipling’s diverse Seeonee wolf pack, vultures (here in a barbershop quartet), bees, butterflies, peacock, elephants, and villainous snake and tiger are not boldly stylized with Julie Taymor-like masks into ritualized animal entities. Without such masks (the elephants – caricatures of British colonialists – wear big ears and every quadruped sports tails), this bestiary feels fatally anthropomorphic. And offensively so: When the “step and fetch it” monkeys indulge in the cakewalk first act finale, then open the second act with a tap dancing blues number, this Jungle Book starts to get vaguely, well, politically incorrect.

In Zimmerman’s strangely old-fashioned “throwback” of a musical, a blatant culture clash masquerading as animal antics, however colorfully costumed by Mara Blumenfeld, looks like bastardized exploitation. Never more so than when André de Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.Shields’ King of the Monkeys channels Little Richard to the stereotypical max in “I Wanna Be Like You.”

Zimmerman’s book, lumbered with tedious jokes stolen from a seventh-grade recess, fails to improve on the original in two big ways. She’s found no “throughline” or arc to replace Kipling’s random vignettes. Nothing is at stake in these 140 minutes. (At least we knew where Dorothy Gale came from and why she wanted to get back to Kansas.) But Akash Chopra’s less-than-endearing tyke Mowgli never gets homesick because we know nothing about why he was suddenly snatched from his middle-class parlor by Nikka Graff Lanzarone’s baffling Peacock.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.Worse is what happens to the one plot line that Zimmerman tentatively pursues: The Monkeys want the “man-cub” Mowgli to bring them the “red flower” of fire. After repeatedly bringing this up, Zimmerman abruptly drops the search, smugly assuming that the audience won’t notice the red herring. Nothing could look sloppier.

The one hope for a heart here is Mowgli’s interaction with the Samaritan-like creatures that befriend this lonely, trusting Hindu homeboy, and seek to return him home. Never very funny, Kevin Carolan’s good-hearted, blue-collar bear Baloo and Usman Ally’s more mysterious panther Bagheera are enjoyable enough as jungle buddies. But, unlike Kipling, we barely see the bonding where they teach this wild child the assorted wisdom that Kipling poured into Jungle Book and his Just-So Stories.

As for the story’s one source of conflict, the Bengal tiger Shere Khan, (Larry Yando, who played the menacing lion Uncle Scar in Chicago’s production of The Lion King) is never threatening and easily defeated. His confusing death, accompanied by rising Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman Theatre in balls and Eastern bling, amounts to an unearned apotheosis where he renounces his stripes and repudiates his carnivore activities.

Given Goodman’s budget, Zimmerman throws in gorgeous distractions to disguise the complete lack of urgency of everything on stage. Westernized and domesticated from the inscrutable East, we glimpse filigreed thrones for the unidentified Hindu deities who descend from the firmament, giant iconographic hands in ceremonial stillness, a balcony-like bed festooned with temple ornamentation, a glorious green-tiled stage floor, and jungle vegetation straight out of Henri Rousseau. The show is eclectic without ever being exotic, mannered but not mysterious, utterly perfunctory, lovely to look at, and so forgettable as to cast a Lotus-like spell on you.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

photos by Liz Lauren

The Jungle Book
Goodman Theatre
scheduled to end on August 18, 2013
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