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The Jungle Book wars, onstage

Mary Zimmerman's best answer to her critics is this flawed, defiant show.

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Mary Zimmerman was drawing heat for her stage version of The Jungle Book even before it hit the Goodman Theatre stage. First off, Chicago magazine's Catey Sullivan noted that the material in the show derives originally from a collection of short stories by Rudyard Kipling, the Victorian-era Nobel laureate anathematized now as a leading apologist for Western imperialism and its racist underpinnings. Worse, Zimmerman's more immediate source is Disney's 1967 animated Jungle Book, which some consider racist in its own right—exhibit A being "I Want to Be Like You," a jazzy number sung by a bunch of apes, including an orangutan named King Louie, whose style veers uncomfortably close to that of Louis Armstrong (though the voice on the soundtrack actually belongs to Italian-American Louis Prima). In a screed titled "The Trouble With Mary," Silk Road Rising artistic director Jamil Khoury impugned Zimmerman—who's adapted such Near Eastern and Asian classics as The Arabian Nights, Journey to the West, Mirror of the Invisible World, and, of course, the Odyssey—for her "reckless, unexamined Orientalism." Evidently secure in his own bona fides as an American with relatives who've actually lived in Syria, Khoury advised Zimmerman to "adapt stories about her native plains states and leave the Silk Road alone!"

Zimmerman responded by speaking and writing soothingly to her critics (in "no way did I ever intend to belittle the pervasive effects of British colonialism . . . nor did I mean to condone in any way the deplorable realities of racism") and then going about her business—with maybe just the slightest thumb of the nose thrown in. Playing King Louie, black actor André De Shields sings a verse of "I Want to Be Like You" in full-out, gravel-voiced, sweat-mopping, big-grinning imitation of Satchmo.

But Zimmerman gives a much better reply to Khoury and company in the way she treats Jungle Book's musical score. While following the adventures of Mowgli—an orphaned human "man cub," growing up in the Indian rain forest under the benign parental gaze of some wolves, a panther, and a bear—the old Disney cartoon gets a lot of comic mileage out of imposing Western musical tropes on its anthropomorphic cast of characters. In addition to the scat-singing apes, the bear—Baloo—does Dixieland, elephants march to a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche, and vultures form a barbershop quartet. Zimmerman and her musical director, Doug Peck, have taken chunks of the movie music and reorchestrated them so that a baritone sax, a trumpet, a trombone, and a clarinet, for instance, might meet up with a couple sitars and a tabla.

The message I take from this sonic collision is that there's no such thing as purity when it comes to culture. To paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, we're all in the total animal soup of influence, whether that influence came about as the result of ruthless conquest and exploitation or a Facebook post. Yes, the West has lots to answer for with regard to colonial crimes the world over. But, more and more, the present and future are a mix of everything from everywhere, all the time. And really, East vs. West is the least of it insofar as The Jungle Book is concerned. I mean, after all, it's the tale of a boy who finds family among the beasts of the forest. Talk about tolerance.

If only the take-away were as clear for the rest of Zimmerman's production. She draws some delightful work from her cast and crew—especially De Shields as the zoot-suited King Louie and an uncanny Kevin Carolan as Baloo. Anjali Bhimani tells us all we need to know about mother love as Raksha the wolf, Thomas Derrah is slithery fun as Kaa the python, Jeremy Duvall is simply the damnedest thing as a bald, dancing butterfly, and designer Mara Blumenfeld comes through wittily on what has to be the costuming assignment of a lifetime. Dan Ostling, meanwhile, has created a sumptuous, evocative scenic design reminiscent of another musical about a British child thrown back on the kindness of strangers: Broadway's 1991 The Secret Garden. But in narrative terms, much of what goes on here is too diffusely blocked or garbled outright.

There are lots of examples, but the crucial one comes during the climactic showdown between Mowgli and his bloodthirsty nemesis, Shere Khan the tiger. Zimmerman's radical reimagining of the scene involves the intervention of a Hindu deity—as literal a deus ex machina as you're ever likely to see. It's an interesting concept, if a little overkillish. Yet the fact that we've neither seen nor heard tell of the deity prior to his big entrance creates considerable confusion. And Zimmerman's lovely but abstract visualization of his intervention only heightens that confusion. In this and other instances, it seems as if what we're looking at is a draft version of the show Zimmerman has in her head.

Her Jungle Book is at odds with itself in a more fundamental way, too. It opens with a child standing in a comfy Victorian sitting room, holding a book. We're to understand that the book is what opens the way to all the wild events that follow. Zimmerman's heavy reliance on elements from the Disney movie undermines that understanding, though. The sense of literature come to life is swallowed up by a more garish vision of cartoon characters appearing live onstage—not unlike, say, Disney on Ice. To right the balance, Zimmerman will need either to go deeper into Kipling's original text or start out with the kid watching TV.

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