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Welcome to the jungle: ‘The Jungle Book’ play is a joyful dream at Huntington Theatre

Susan Saccoccia | 10/9/2013, 2:20 p.m.
Author Rudyard Kipling transformed the 19th-century colonial India of his childhood into a realm of adventure in "The Jungle Book." ...
André de Shields (King Louie) and Akash Chopra (Mowgli) in Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman’s new musical adaption of “The Jungle Book.” (Liz Lauren photo) Liz Lauren

Daniel Ostling’s gorgeous sets, Mara Blumenfeld’s expressive costumes and the music and choreography evoke the British India of Kipling’s lifetime. Atmospheric lighting by T.J. Gerckens illuminates the telling details as well as the show’s swirling spectacles.

Constantly shifting like the patterns in a kaleidoscope, the jeweled-tone set frames the scenes in flower-painted panels that rise, fall, part and fold together. Ornate cabinets lift musicians into the air, the better to display them. A divan suspended from the ceiling delivers reclining aristocrats such as Shere Khan, an aged but menacing tiger who relentlessly hunts Mowgli, the meal he has eyed for years.

As music director, Doug Peck adapted many songs from the Disney film and he conducts the show’s first-rate, 14-member orchestra, whose members play western brass, reeds and percussion as well as the sitar, carnatic violin, tablas and oud. Just as the music crosses eras and cultures, Christopher Gattelli’s choreography combines the serpentine movements of classical Indian dance with elements of jazz, tap and break-dancing.

Outfitted in scarlet uniforms to resemble a military marching band of the British Raj, the musicians often stride from the pit onto the stage while playing their instruments, where actors dressed as butterflies dance around them. In one scene, the brass and percussion players become part of an imaginary elephant parade. As the music ends, the marchers arrange their bodies into the shape an elephant, complete with a curving trunk.

All this showmanship could wear thin if the show remained little more than a series of song and dance numbers. But fortunately, the story gains a bit of momentum as Mowgli encounters various predators and gains survival skills.

Two louche aristocrats nearly steal the show, injecting a welcome bit of decadence into the jungle society.

As King Louie, an orangutan who leads a tribe of monkeys, André De Shields sings the jazz-inflected showstopper, “I Wanna Be Like You,” by Disney songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, brothers who wrote most of the movie’s music. Monkeys mimic human behavior and these monkeys want to adopt the power to create fire.

Swaggering onstage in a lounge robe and orange dreadlocks, King Louie looks like a party animal roused from much-needed sleep. Presiding over the frenzied monkeys with a crooked grin, he injects his sarcastic song with gospel fervor and then, easing into a jazz cadence, pulls out an orange hanky in a tribute to Louie Armstrong.

The only villain is Shere Khan, the aged tiger who has hunted Mowgli for years. As portrayed by Larry Yando, he is a complicated character. Licking his fingers after devouring a deer, he is seductive but cynical in a regal turban and robe. Voicing his matter-of-fact appraisal of life in the song, “Your Unexpected Friend,” Yando’s tiger takes “The Jungle Book” beyond a childhood adventure and reflects on the boundaries between humans and animals as well as life and death.

Celebrating the transporting magic of imagination, the story begins and ends in a grand drawing room, with a boy and his book.