Jungle Book: Look for the Bare Necessities

08/21/2013 11:42 am ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

When Mary Zimmerman was announced to direct/adapt Disney's The Jungle Book, I was surprised. I never thought the production would materialize (Pinocchio, anyone?), but knew that if it did, I'd have to see it. Well, the show was recently in the midst of a super successful world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. So I went. I brought my friend, Dr. Devika Maulik, who is a huge Metamorphoses fan. She will give her review after mine. If you missed the show at the Goodman -- you can catch it at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company starting September 7.


First let me say that the Goodman is doing a great job hosting the premiere. There are Jungle Book events all over Chicago. The lobby features kids treats and a station where you can decorate your own Jungle Book masks. It's a really nice theater-going experience out there. I am looking forward to seeing more Goodman productions in the future.

And now onto the show...

Zimmerman is an intellectual creative, one rarely associated with light fare. From the moment this Jungle Book was announced, I could immediately picture Zimmerman doing a beautiful adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling stories (akin to her brilliant The Arabian Nights). What I couldn't imagine as well was her staging of big Disney numbers. Yes, Zimmerman has done musicals, including a popular Candide at the Goodman. But there are musicals and then there are Disney musicals. Disney musicals have a certain cartoonish brightness to them, at least the successful ones. Zimmerman's works are not of that quality. She deals in subtle beauty -- not loud beats.

Nevertheless I remained hopeful that this Jungle Book would be transcendent. Unfortunately it fell somewhat short of that, albeit high, expectation. I am still extremely happy I saw it and liked much of it. The last 30 seconds, or at least the last 30 seconds before the "Jungle Rhythm" curtain call song, are among the most beautiful I've seen in the theater in years. Indeed, the framing device in general, which has the jungle world unfolding from a story Mogli is reading, is wonderful. There is a great Zimmerman play in there -- her adaptation of the Kipling stories could very well be remarkable. It is just, as of now, there is still a little bit of a mismatch between the Zimmerman storytelling and the required musical numbers. Christopher Gattelli's choreography is so traditionally Indian I felt like I saw it in our college cultural show (which Dr. Maulik had a starring role in). And the musical numbers in general are not built up to or supported well enough (despite the positive impact of having the musicians occasionally onstage). During the prolonged Act I monkey number, I looked around and saw children fading.

The performers all give solid performances and there are some beautiful stage pictures. Some of it is brilliant. And I greatly admire its ambition -- I would sit through this Jungle Book ten more times before I would sit through a remounting of Broadway's Beauty and the Beast again. (As a matter of fact, I hope to see Jungle Book at Huntingon). But a successful musical needs a perfect marriage between the book scenes and the musical numbers; The Jungle Book needs counseling.


Disclaimer: I am a Metamorphoses groupie. I remember my first time, sitting in the audience in the Second Stage Theater, when the lights snapped off at the very end of the play and feeling, well, transformed. As far as I am concerned, Mary Zimmerman, like any true artist, even when she doesn't create something perfect like Metamorphoses, produces something that is invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

Of course, being a fan, I was both excited and puzzled to hear that Disney recruited her talents in reinterpreting their Jungle Book, which unlike the source material is relatively light and full of catchy, finger-snapping jazz tunes. Truly, I couldn't see the fit. And I am delighted to say that the Jungle Book, in Zimmerman's hands, is an altogether enjoyable though muddled production.

Zimmerman, to her credit, attempted to bring some Indian authenticity back into the story, away from Disney's pizzazz and light touch and even away from Rudyard Kipling's distinctly colonial voice. However, one leaves the theater wondering if Zimmerman's voice was somehow compromised by her adherence to Disney's retelling of the story. The production would be probably less commercial and kid-friendly (whatever that means) had she had full reigns on how to fashion her interpretation of Jungle Book, but it would've been also more interesting, with a narrative infused with a consistent sense of love and emotion throughout and not just in the last 10-20 minutes. Of course, a friend wondered how the production would've been different in the hands of a South Asian director, and I can't help thinking there would've been a lot more Bollywood and Bhangra. So in that regard, I applaud Zimmerman. I just wish I had left the theatre, not just entertained and mostly impressed -- but transformed.