Two years ago, Mary Zimmerman entranced Huntington Theatre Company audiences with her production of “Candide,’’ the musical tale of a wide-eyed young adventurer who discovers that the world is a merciless jungle.
Now this talented adaptor-director is back at the Huntington with another musical tale of a wide-eyed young adventurer, this time a lad for whom a jungle is the world: Mowgli, the “man-cub’’ at the center of “The Jungle Book.’’
As was the case with “Candide,’’ Zimmerman’s visual imagination and rigorous artistry are evident throughout “The Jungle Book.’’ Yet you’re seldom swept away by this family-friendly production, based on the 1967 Disney animated film and the stories of Rudyard Kipling.
Scene after scene is capably and sometimes beautifully executed, but rare are the moments when your emotions are fully engaged, and few are the truly exhilarating highs. Zimmerman’s adaptation does not put enough flesh on the relatively thin narrative bones of “The Jungle Book’’ to keep us consistently invested in the story.
You find yourself admiring the work of the director and her creative team, especially costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, but you’re not enveloped by the sensations of “The Jungle Book’’ the way you are when you’re watching, say, “The Lion King,’’ another stage adaptation of a popular Disney animated film/coming-of-age story. (It’s hard to envision “The Jungle Book’’ following in those lucrative pawprints.)
As for the cast, the performances are a mixed bag. Chief among the show’s charms is Kevin Carolan’s entertaining portrayal of Baloo the bear, a shambling, likable lummox who becomes Mowgli’s companion in the Indian jungle.
Wearing a costume of concentric hoops that encircle his body, Carolan delivers a rendition of “The Bare Necessities’’ that registers as not just a jaunty ode to carefree living but as a virtual philosophy of life — a clear forerunner to “Hakuna Matata’’ from “The Lion King,’’ come to think of it. Carolan (who created the role of Teddy Roosevelt in “Newsies The Musical’’) is equally amusing during “Baloo’s Blues,’’ a lament crooned while the bear is seemingly inebriated from imbibing the contents of the honeypot he’s clutching.
Playing Shere Khan, the man-eating Bengal tiger who’s looking to make a snack out of Mowgli, Larry Yando displays a silky elegance as he reclines on an elevated seat or prowls upon the stage. But Yando is not terribly menacing. It is when Shere Khan loses his powers, in an otherworldly death scene ingeniously devised by Zimmerman, that the powers of the once-mighty predator are most palpably felt.
Boston’s own Thomas Derrah is an asset as Kaa, a sibilant snake who also has designs on Mowgli but can’t seem to finish the job, his hypnotic powers notwithstanding. As Bagheera the protective panther, Usman Ally doesn’t project sufficient personality. Nor is Ed Kross goofy enough in the role of Colonel Hathi, the handlebar-mustache-wearing elephant.
When longtime Broadway veteran Andre De Shields seizes the stage, though, the temperature of “The Jungle Book’’ measurably rises. He plays King Louie, an orangutan and leader of a band of monkeys who kidnap young Mowgli (enthusiastically portrayed by Akash Chopra), intent on eliciting from him the secret of fire. Toward that end, De Shields performs “I Wanna Be Like You,’’ while the monkeys shake and twirl and hurl things about, the action rising to a state of pandemonium until De Shields finally faces the audience, points a finger at them, and sings: “I want to be like you.’’
Zimmerman has successfully imbued the production with distinctive elements of Indian culture, especially the musical arrangements by Doug Peck, which employ such instruments as a sitar. (Peck also conducts the fine orchestra.) Blumenfeld’s ever-shifting array of inventive and colorful costumes are a reliable treat, while Daniel Ostling’s floral set evokes the lushness of the jungle, if not quite enough of its mystery. At its best, Christopher Gattelli’s choreography brings the jungle to stomping, swirling life.
The bottom line: It’s easy to respect this “Jungle Book,’’ but it’s harder to get lost in it.