Goodman Theatre’s ‘Jungle Book’ spins classic tale

“The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are two tunes familiar to most of the college-aged audience. Growing up watching many of the Disney classics on VHS, the playful and colorful “Jungle Book” is certainly one many people have seen. But for those heading off to see the world premiere of “The Jungle Book” musical at the Goodman Theatre, be prepared to see something different.

This innovative version incorporates aspects of the 1967 animated Disney movie and Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories set in the Indian jungle. The story remains the same: Mowgli, a young boy, grew up in the jungle with a pack of wolves and feels he is where he belongs, but the jungle animals feel that he needs to go back to the man village before he is hurt or killed. The production itself feels authentic, incorporating Indian musical instruments and costuming. However, the first act is just not powerful enough to captivate the audience.

The audience filled with young kids to adults sat quietly in their seats through most of the first act waiting patiently for something exciting. It wasn’t until a good 30-40 minutes into the show, when everyone heard the first few notes of “The Bare Necessities” from the orchestra, that the audience collectively perked up and began to move around to the familiar tune.

From that point, the first act was right on the money. Once Kevin Carolan hits the stage as the loveable bear, Baloo, the energy picks up. One problem is that Baloo is really the only character that is well-developed. Even Mowgli (played by the brilliant Akash Chopra) seems distant from the story at times. It’s a shame that Mowgli does not have his own song at any point in the show. Glimpses of the 10-year-old actor’s voice prove that he is more than capable and could add a heartfelt number that would allow the audience to really connect with little Mowgli.

The other strong section of the show has to be the opening of Act Two. Thank goodness for Christopher Gatelli’s creative tap choreography that is hands down the most unique part of the show. The show needs more memorable moments that get the audience’s feet tapping and humming the show’s tunes as they walk out at the end. The older audience will certainly admire the authentic beauty of the production, but the show would certainly benefit with a more playful attitude that kids can grasp onto.

Andr’ÛΩ De Shields adds some punch as Akela and King Louie, bringing his soulful voice to the Act One finale of “I Wanna Be Like You.” The strong ensemble shines throughout, but could really be better utilized. Mara Blumenfeld’s unique costume design works perfectly, capturing the essence of each animal while allowing the actors to move purposefully and easily.

Director Mary Zimmerman certainly creates a beautiful theatre experience, capturing the authentic essence of the Indian jungle. With stronger character development of the main trio – Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera – and more songs to latch onto, I think many will admire this new musical.