Once upon a time, in a land not far away, there lived a wonderful magician, and her name was Mary Zimmerman. Not long ago, she helmed a production of “Candide” for the Huntington Theatre that was the finest piece of theater seen in these parts in decades. She has now returned to the Huntington stage as the author and director of a brand new version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, based in part on the Disney animated film of the same name. It became perhaps the most eagerly anticipated production of the current season, with many questioning how storytelling about a boy brought up by animals in the wild could possibly captivate a sophisticated audience in these more cynical times. One need not have feared. Zimmerman, her seemingly bottomless bag of theatrical magic intact, has done it again.
With a terrific cast of nineteen and an amazingly versatile orchestra of twelve (and more about that later), there is much for one’s senses to absorb. From the first appearance of the diminutive young hero Mowgli (Akash Chopra), in his astoundingly poised professional debut, to the panther Bagheera (the fabulously sinuous Usman Ally), the tiger Shere Khan (the majestically sinister Larry Yando), the python Kaa (the sensationally sibilant Thomas Derrah), the unforgettable elephants Colonel Hathi and Lieutenant George (the vaudeville-inspired Ed Kross and Geoff Packard), the lovely Peacock (the stunning Nikka Graff Lanzarone) and the brief but pivotal role of Little Girl (Glory Curda), this is a cornucopia of marvelous star turns. They’re supported by a chorus who are not your usual somewhat anorexic ensemble, but actually look like real people, uh, that is, animals, wonderfully choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (a Tony winner for his recent work on another Disney venture, “Newsies”).
After a slightly sluggish start, the show comes alive with the welcome appearance of a bear named Baloo (Kevin Carolan). Carolan, in an amazingly clever costume, is adorable and hysterical at the same time, providing some much-needed feeling, with his growing platonic-but-heartfelt bromance (dare one call it bearmance?) with Mowgli. His arrival, with his showstopping “Bare Necessities”, is soon followed by the marvelous entrance of King Louie (Andre De Shields), head of all the monkey business. In his own showstopper, “I Wanna Be Like You”, De Shields somehow manages to devour every piece of scenery in sight, shamelessly (yet successfully) mugging his way through a fabulously choreographed tap dance where the only human is barefooted and all the monkeys are in tap shoes. These two production numbers are the highlights of the first act, which even at fifty-five minutes could use a bit of trimming and a touch more of that heart provided by Baloo. At the end of this act, a father and his daughter left the theater (probably because she was only five years old), having seen a good show, which was a shame, for if they’d left at the end of the second act, they’d have seen a magnificent one.
Contrary to the usual norm, this piece of musical theater has a second act that transports the work to a level rarely experienced. This time, a fifty-five minute act fled by, propelled by non-stop theatrical bliss. It’s a truism that many a musical rises or falls on the strength or weakness of its music and lyrics. This score, by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with some new lyrics for two of their songs by Richard M. Sherman, is already beloved by many who have embraced the film over the years, and is very well served here. The music and lyrics for two of the songs, from an earlier proposed treatment of the film version, are by Terry Gilkyson (“Kalaweeta, Kaliana” and the popular “Bare Necessities”), and the music and lyrics for one new number, “Jungle Rhythm”, are by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowski. The resulting seamless amalgam is a delight, ranging from blues to swing to jazz, and even barbershop (in a particularly memorable number by a hilarious quartet of vultures).
The orchestra, all attired in colorful turbans and “sherwani” coats, frequently leaving the pit to take part in the onstage action, played numerous instruments, some familiar and some exotic. Yes, another musical score (with fascinating orchestration by Doug Peck) featuring sitars, dafs, veenas, flugelhorns, dholaks, ghattams, dhols, dumbeks, and tablas. Not since that other Disney musical about the king of another jungle in another part of the world has there been such an intriguing treat for the ears, enhanced by the complex sound design by the trio of Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli and Andre J. Pluess; and a treat for the eyes, for the exquisitely beautiful costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, the strikingly effective light design by T.J. Gerckens, and the gorgeous sets by Daniel Ostling are, to coin a word, awesome. Ostling is especially creative in the opening and closing scenes, both very cinematic, which bookend the fantasy; his final simple, silent, surreal scene is one that will linger in the hearts of theatergoers for years to come. It’s a miracle of stagecraft. The only miracle remaining is how one gets one’s hands on a ticket once word gets out about how this sublime work takes flight, and takes us along for the ride. The answer to the question as to whether wild animals can be captivating is yes, they Shere Khan.