A Roar as Fierce as its Bite: THE JUNGLE BOOK

André de Shields (King Louie) and Akash Chopra (Mowgli); Photo: Liz Lauren

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
Produced in association with Goodman Theatre
Based on the Disney movie of the same name and the stories of Rudyard Kipling
Book and direction by Mary Zimmerman
Music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman, Terry Gilkyson, Lorraine Feather, Paul Grabowski

September 7 – October 20, 2013
Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre
Boston, MA
Huntington Theatre Co on Facebook

Run time: 2 hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission
Recommended: For adults and families with children ages 6+, but if your child is able to sit quietly through a film in a movie theatre, they will be able to enjoy this production.

Review by Kitty Drexel

***Edited because my typos were showing***

(Boston) The Huntington is known for good theatre that takes few risks. While deserving of the awards that they receive, the Huntington’s programming errs on the institutional. The shows are reliable. To any other Boston-area theatre, reliability would mean death.The Jungle Book is such a strong departure from the usual Huntington fare that their decision to host the Boston leg of the musical tour might be construed as a risk. It is not. The Jungle Book would charm the fur off of the back of the grumpiest of theatre cats.

This production is electric; a guaranteed win for the theatre: the costumes are vivid, the actors are extraordinary, and the set is sumptuous, the backing by Disney certainly doesn’t hurt. If you see anything presented by The Huntington this season; see this show. Bring your children and your parents. Bring everyone. This show should not be missed!

Author Rudyard Kipling had the great fortune to be born in India and live a large percentage of his life there. It is theorized that the stories in his Jungle Book anthologies were written for his daughter Josephine. They unfortunately reflect the colonialist views of the 1890’s and appropriate Indian culture as raw and barbarian. The Disney movie was made at the height of the civil rights movement in 1967. It was slammed as racist for giving powerful characters English accents and less dignified characters (such as King Louie) ethnic accents. Mowgli is even told that he can’t live with Baloo because it’s unnatural for different species need to live together. Cough. Both are a far cry from the actual vibrancy and intellectual brilliance of India’s culture. Fortunately, the Huntington’s production corrects the mistakes of the Disney movie and Kipling’s stories. The updated script and score ring closer to the original source material and pay homage to India’s religion, culture and folk music.

The cast is pure gold. Andre De Shields’ (Akela/King Louie) and Kevin Carolan’s (Baloo) performances were show stopping (in Mr. De Sheilds’ case, this is literal. He performance of “I Wanna Be Like You” ran on for at least 5 extra minutes to the exaltation of the audience.).  I could continue to lay the compliments on thick for the entire company – they would be well deserved. The anthropomorphic acting talents of each member are highly detailed and well researched. Nikka Graff Lanzarone as the Peacock was particularly excellent. She is the first example the audience receives as preparation for the tremendous experience the show offers.

The entire ensemble pulled triple duty as actors, acrobats and chorus. They appear and reappear as wolves, pachyderms, monkeys and many other supporting characters within moments of exiting the stage. Their dance and movement work contain great detail. The only aspect of their performance lacking is their diction.  Sections if the chorus music competes with the orchestra at its boldest and is lost to the ears of the audience.

This show is so visually luscious as to trick the eyes and mind into believing they are watching a movie. The set design is rich like Zardozi tapestry.  The lighting must be seen to be believed. The costumes are so lavish as to inspire salivation. The orchestra includes traditional Indian folk instruments (and POCs who play them!). This production is ready for Broadway.

The show is surprisingly lacking in women’s roles. The character of Raksha, the wolf-mother who adopts Mowgli, was fleshed out to create a medium-sized ensemble role for Anjali Bhimani. Women play butterflies and other roles. A doe (Alka Nayyar) is added to the plot as contrast to Shere Khan (Larry Yando). Colonel Hathi has an unnamed wife who speaks a few lines. Yet there are no female roles of weight in the show. If the stories and movie are deserving of rewrites to expel racism, then why can’t sexism be written out as well? It is 2013, not 1913, and this is an allegorical fable not historical fact. There is no reason the role of Kaa (played by the sassy Thomas Derrah), for example, or any of the vultures couldn’t be written for women. The actors, staff and audience deserve better.

The Huntington’s The Jungle Book is an excellent production. This tale of nature vs. nurture should be watched and cherished like a classic it is. Like American Repertory Theatre’s Pippin last season, this musical will help change the face of the Boston theatre scene. You should be there when it happens.

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