There's no denying that the great Mary Zimmerman's The Jungle Book (at the Huntington through October 20) is wonderful at its best; the talented director of Candide and her high-powered cast (and musical crew) repeatedly tap into the scampering sense of boyish fun at the bottom of Rudyard Kipling's original tales of the Indian jungle. Of course Walt Disney, whose animated version supplies most of the music for this new stage version (and some of the original financing, too), captured an infectious sense of fun as well – but he did so by pounding Kipling into a brassy, jazzy Hollywood template, while Zimmerman clearly wants to restore a sense of sensual complexity to the material.
But beyond that, Zimmerman never quite figures out how to square Disney's gung-ho American optimism with Rudyard Kipling's edgier, more exotic vision. And while her attempt to honor Indian culture by re-setting Disney's tunes on Indian instruments is laudable, and the new arrangements often brilliant, they never quite transport us to the actual surround of the fabled subcontinent, because they're still Disney tunes, aren't they – basically catchy but deracinated jazz. And as for the sly critique of Kipling's colonialism Zimmerman seems to be trying to weave into the author's own material – well, this rarely amounts to more than a wry in-joke.
So we never quite understand where Zimmerman is landing on all these interlocking (and vaguely contradictory) questions. She seems to want some sort of edge to the material, but not as sharp a one as Kipling originally intended. And she's not really interested in seeing Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves who's at the center of Jungle and its sequel, actually mature and become a man (Disney wasn't interested in that, either). Because while Zimmerman is (of course) uncomfortable with Kipling's colonial ethos, she's also not entirely comfortable with his masculine ethos; there's a faintly maternal scent to the whole show that I found endearing, but would have set the British author's porn-stache twirling.
But did all this stop me from enjoying The Jungle Book? Hardly. Indeed, I often loved it. It's true there are a few longeurs, and the big Disney production numbers pack the most punch, but there are production marvels – and marvelous performances – peeping out seemingly from behind every outsized leaf in Zimmerman's extravaganza. And an extravaganza is precisely what it is. This is a landscape in which, rather than hang from a tree limb, panthers drift by on floating divans, while gold lamé pythons slither out from under the stage. To an adult, it's charming – but to a child, I think it would be utterly magical, in a way that Disney could never imagine.
To my mind, that alone is reason enough to buy a ticket – but wait, there's more. In fact there's Kevin Carolan's genially hammy Baloo the bear, the great André de Shield's electrifying orangutan King Louie, Thomas Derrah's slippery python Kaa, and (perhaps best of all) Usman Ally's fastidious Bagheera, an ever-so-slightly ambiguously gay panther. And having the time of his life through it all is the captivating Akash Chopra (in rotation with Roni Akurati in the role of Mowgli), who gives a delightfully unforced performance.
There's also a talented consort of artists down in the pit, mixing up the tenor sax with the veena and sitar. Indeed, perhaps the top note of the whole show arrives when Zimmerman (borrowing a trick from Disney) pulls her musicians up on stage to blow through the infectious “I Wanna Be Like You” with André de Shields. At such moments, you forget all about Kipling, and colonialism, and everything else – and simply give yourself over to the power of this exquisitely entertaining show.