The Huntington Theatre Company in Boston announced today that its current production of The Jungle Book is now the highest-grossing production in the company's history, with three weeks still left in the show's twice-extended run.
Yet again, I find myself at odds with public opinion, as I did with the current Broadway productions Pippin and Kinky Boots, neither of which I personally found compelling, but which the general public seems to be devouring voraciously. Likewise, The Jungle Book, based on the 1967 Disney movie, has become a pretty hot ticket in Boston, and I'll be damned if I can see what other people are seeing in this production, which I found eminently resistible, instantly forgettable, and overall kind of a yawn.I'm sure this is a case of unreasonably high expectations on my part, because I was so genuinely amazed by director Mary Zimmerman's recent reinvention of the musical Candide, which played the Huntington a few seasons back. That production was bursting with inventiveness, and I was sort of hoping that The Jungle Book would reflect a similar sense of innovative stagecraft and dynamic storytelling. No such luck. To be sure, The Jungle Book has many dazzling moments and sequences. What it doesn't have is a compelling story to tell, or even real, heartfelt characterizations, with some notable exceptions.
Zimmerman also provides the libretto, as she did with her reimagined Candide, but her book here is detrimentally episodic and narratively diffuse. What's more, Zimmerman as director has failed to give the production any sense of momentum. The show simply flows from episode to episode, without fully taking advantage of a number of potentially compelling devices. Whatever narrative tension exists comes from how the man-cub Mowgli wants to stay in the jungle, while his animal friends think he's better off with his own kind. There's also the specter of the tiger who shadows Mowgli throughout the show. But these elements get lost in a series of seemingly random encounters and fail to build, or even coalesce.
Even the two well-known songs from the movie, "Bare Necessities" and "Be Like You," fail to leave a lasting impression because Zimmerman has miscalculated what could make these numbers compelling. The former loses any sense of build because of an enervating series of solos that Zimmerman provides for each of the itinerant musicians who wander through the show. And the latter is simply too loud and too long, trying unsuccessfully to leave a lasting impression by dint of sheer force. There's also an incredibly clumsy tap number, for which someone made the rather quizzical choice of placing taps on the hands of the dancers as well as their feet. In an effort to make use of this awkward device, choreographer Christopher Gattelli saps the number of any residual energy that may have been in the process of building up.
The only marginally memorable aspects of this Jungle Book were the admittedly sumptuous visual design by Daniel Ostling (scenic design) and Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), and two indelible performances from Kevin Carolan as Balloo and the magical Andre de Shields as Akela and King Louie, both of whom veritably shine in their respective moments in the sun. Otherwise, The Jungle Book is a show that I actually need to keep reminding myself that I saw.