You can put a high-art spin on Disney, but in the end, it's still Disney. This proves the downfall of director Mary Zimmerman's tasteful rendering of the Rudyard Kipling children's classic, The Jungle Book, now playing at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company after a sold-out run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Perhaps Disney Theatrical Productions, in partnering, was hoping to sprinkle a bit of The Lion King pixie dust on this property, making it Broadway-worthy. If so, it has a way to go. The main stumbling block is the score, mostly borrowed from the 1967 animated film, which was one of the final projects initiated by Walt Disney himself (it came out posthumously). Even when enhanced by a bit of indigenous Indian instrumentation, the songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman songs are old-school, consisting mostly of jive jazz borrowings, plus the occasional sentimental tune. Where The Lion King had Elton John to send original melodies soaring, The Jungle Book has bogus big-band numbers that feel superficial.
And it's a pity, because Zimmerman is easily Julie Taymor's equal, even sans masks, and choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies) has deftly captured the body language of jungle fauna. A spirited cast — notably André De Shields as a Louis Armstrong-inspired orangutan King Louie — does its best to breath life into a lackluster text.
Mowgli, the boy, (played by the appealing Akash Chopra at the performance I attended), keeps insisting that he knows nothing about the workings of the "red flower," a.k.a. fire, that all the animals consider the source of humans' higher powers. And yet somehow Mowgli does succeed in harnessing fire to vanquish his nemesis, the tiger Shere Khan (Larry Yando), who has long-expressed the wish to "have him for dinner."
Music and text aside, there are visual treats aplenty in Zimmerman's staging, starting and ending with a Victorian-era mother (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), made gigantic via stilts and peacock-like by an iridescent bustle and avian gestures. Usman Ally is smoothly pantherine as Mowgli's protector, Bagheera, and Thomas Derrah hits all the S's as the serpent Kaa (here depicted as a predator, rather than the protector/savant of the original tale).
The stage really comes alive when four top-hatted vultures perch on a branch, discussing whom they'll soon be enjoying as leftovers. I was rather voting for the bear Baloo, a Disney-fied Winnie clone whom Kevin Carolan plays with showbizzy schmaltz. And there's another respite toward the very end, when Mowgli espies his first female counterpart (lovely Glory Curda), as she fetches water — fluttery blue scraps — by a well.
For however much parents may have loved the cartoon original, Disney had better head back to the drawing-board with this version.