In the very last scene of Mary Zimmerman's production of "The Jungle Book," when Mowgli the lost man-cub is safely back with his own people and his adventures with Bagheera, King Louie and Baloo have receded in his memory, a little visual trick brings one of his old pals back reaching for his heart. You get a sudden lump in your throat — the craving for the lost loves and adventures of childhood that has sustained the Walt Disney Co. for decades.
The main problem with Zimmerman's new show — a classy, sophisticated, visually beautiful but cool-to-the-touch affair that solves many of the inherent challenges with this episodic material but trips up when it comes to its emotional potential and its narrative trajectory — is that this is the first such moment when you've felt such a connection.
Zimmerman and her gifted costume designer, Mara Blumenfeld, who triumphs here, have solved something that has tripped up some previous Disney stage adaptations of its animated movies. They've found the right metaphor to let the actors be at once human and yet convey the soul and essence of their animals, familiar from the beloved 1967 movie. This is no mean feat, especially since the look of the show feels so fresh and visually light on its feet.
And yet as sensual and gorgeous as Dan Ostling's florally infused designs for this piece feel (Ostling and Zimmerman tell the story through Indian vistas, such as an elevated seat substituting for vines), the jungle on the Goodman Theatre stage does not contain many shadows or mysteries, and lighting designer T.J. Gerckens offers few dark holes into which a malevolent snake can crawl.
For "The Jungle Book" to really work in the theater, one has to live alongside Mowgli, feeling his rush of excitement and his uncertainty around snakes and panthers. This is a young man who changes, just as Rudyard Kipling's Indian jungle could be a kid's playground at one moment and the seat of nightmares the next, as Disney's brilliant animators well knew.
That requires a lot more attention to the intense emotional journey of the crucial child actor playing this character than seemingly was afforded the kid here, as well as more of a sense of morphing maturation than Zimmerman has managed to embody in a two-hour show — that fuses together the justly beloved Sherman Brothers songs from the movie with Indian music and arrangements.
The resultant show feels much more like a play with music than a Broadway musical. There is no song list in the program, not much for Mowgli to sing, no big Tony-coaxing number in Act 2 for any of the actors.
That's not necessarily a problem. Indeed, the reintroduction of Indian culture and visual tropes into the story by Kipling — a famously unrepentant colonialist — is one of Zimmerman's most notable achievements here. Doug Peck's musical adaptations, arrangements and fusions are fascinating, if a tad esoteric.
Zimmerman has done her own auteur thing, eschewing Broadway comparisons and keeping her scope modest and singular, which, given the inherent pressures, is admirable in and of itself. But the piece, created with the financial support of Disney Theatrical Productions, does not yet seem to understand that "The Jungle Book" fundamentally is a coming-of-age story — the Mowgli who exits the jungle is quite different from the kid whom the wolves find in the bassinet. Like Simba in "The Lion King," he's learned a thing or three.
That's what is missing, along with the sense of the loss that invariably accompanies the changes that befall us in life.
Akash Chopra's Mowgli certainly has a good time in this production, whooping it up with the fabulous Andre DeShields' showstopping King Louie (the Act 1 closer is the killer "I Wanna Be Like You," displaying the talents of choreographer Christopher Gattelli and making us wish for an Act 2 follow-up), and listening to the advice of the paternalistic Bagheera, played with rich honesty by Usman Ally (who truly holds this show together).
At the beginning of the piece, Zimmerman (who is credited with the adaptation) lays out the tension in such a way that you think you and your kids will be on the edge of your seat. The wolf Akela has a reason to save baby Mowgli. Evil tiger Shere Khan (Larry Yando, who is underused) is biding his time. The snake Kaa (the funny but overly benign Thomas Derrah) has a few squeezes in mind. And then there's the pain of the jovial, loving bear Baloo (the genial Kevin Carolan), who gains a son, whose life he saves, only eventually to lose him, like every mom and dad knows and fears, to the wide world beyond. But the tension is allowed to dissipate and stakes to fall.
In this show, Baloo seems mostly as unconcerned as Mowgli when the outside world intrudes. Indeed, the last few minutes are especially problematic, not the least because Zimmerman has elected not to replace Mowgli with an adolescent or young adult actor, and thus his abrupt interest in a girl doesn't feel credible. (Young boys, surely, would rather hang with the panther and the bear.)
Moreover, we don't return to the wolf Akela's potentially framing life journey, even though the terrific yet underexploited DeShields (who also plays Akela) could have been on hand to show us the end of years of wolf leadership.
You just ache for more story in these Act 2 moments. How does Shere Khan feel? What's on Bagheera's complex panther mind? Most of all, what is Mowgli losing as he leaves this jungle for a world of men?
All of that needs fuller expression, which would marry just fine with Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman's lovable but deceptively rich musical score (along with Terry Gilkyson's classic "The Bare Necessities"), especially with Peck's clever additions from the Sherman archive and those stunning Blumenfeld costumes.
Perhaps the way forward, and one hopes this does go forward, is to engage a dedicated book writer to flesh out a piece that feels underwritten, even within the potentially glorious framing device that Zimmerman has forged. Even without such additions, the show desperately needs more humor, more tension, more change.
Who did not get shivers from Kaa's "Trust in Me" in the movie? And that was a cartoon. Theater for a family audience does not mean theater without tears or teeth. Especially when we're together in the jungle, where unseen eyes watch and nothing dares stay still.
When: Through Aug. 11
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $27.50-$125 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye