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THEATER REVIEW: “The Jungle Book” at the Goodman in Chicago

The magical, scary, fascinating world created by Rudyard Kipling in his 1894 “The Jungle Book” is back onstage, and another visit to that jungle is definitely in order if you're anywhere near Chicago.

From the towering, brightly costumed peacock (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) who spirits our boy to India to the "Jungle Rhythm" finale, Adapter/Director Mary Zimmerman and her team enchant with familiar Kipling characters and lush sets (by Daniel Ostling), spectacular costumes (by Mara Blumenfeld), and some of the most original choreography around (by Christopher Gattelli).

Drawing from both the beloved Kipling stories and the blockbuster 1967 Disney animated film, Zimmerman’s orchestrator and arranger Doug Peck uses seven songs from the film and supplements them with additional lyrics, new or recycled songs by Richard Sherman (surviving member of the original film score team), and songs from other shows.

The story of Man-cub Mowgli (the assured and immensely talented Akash Chopra) is as enchanting as ever – the little boy adopted by wolves who wants to stay in this magical place but finds some creatures (notably Panther Bagheera) urging him to return to his own kind.

This version is more Disney than Kipling – heavy on spectacle and magic, light on social comment – but it is such a visual treat and so loaded with fine actors that only the grumpiest Kipling purist will object.

Real life intrudes twice – once when the monkeys steal Mowgli, hoping to get from him the secret of the red flower (fire), and again when Tiger Shere Khan shows his carnivorous nature.

Larry Yando, resplendent in a gold brocade long coat and turban, is both seductive and scary as Tiger Shere Khan, and especially ominous when he sings "Your Unexpected Friend" to latest victim the Doe (Alka Nayyer).

Usman Ally, smart in his all-black Panther ensemble, amuses as the impatient Bagheera, who can't understand why Mowgli won't willingly return to the man village where he belongs.

Mowgli finds a buddy in the honey-scooping bear Baloo (a hilarious Kevin Carolan, in a hoot of a costume), but is distraught when the boy disappears.

The snake Kaa (Thomas Derrah) makes a slithery presence in his gold, shiny skin (and with his two handlers), but doesn’t quite convince Mowgli to “trussssst in me.”

And let’s not forget the monkeys, led by strutting jazzman King Louis (the terrific André De Shields), who has a strange desire “to be a man, man-cub ... I'm tired of monkeyin' around!”

I don’t know why – these monkeys can tap dance better than most men I know.

Oh yes, and the military band of elephants led by Colonel Hathi (Ed Kross) offers a chuckle or too as well.

De Shields (who also plays head wolf Akela) is terrific, with the ‘tude, the pipes and the moves appropriate for the star King Louis is.

Tap-dancing monkeys, a vulture barbershop quartet (Govind Kumar, Geoff Packard, Nehal Joshi and Ed Kross); a12-member orchestra combining jazz with the exotic sounds of Indian instruments and a terrific cast come together to do this Kipling favorite proud.

“The Jungle Book,” produced in association with Huntington Theatre Company, has already been extended in Chicago through Aug. 11. After that, it moves to Boston, from which Broadway will doubtless beckon.

The details

“The Jungle Book” plays through Aug. 11 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn in Chicago.

Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7:30 pm.

Tickets: (312) 433-3800 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.