CHICAGO — Kevin Carolan can pinpoint exactly when he knew that 10-year-old actor Akash Chopra, his costar in “The Jungle Book,” was more than capable of holding his own in an adult theater production.
“During rehearsals, Akash stepped on a nail on the stage and hurt himself,” says Carolan, who plays Baloo, the potbellied brown bear. “He got so upset, he was in tears. Which is amazing, because that was the first time I saw him get upset. I’ve seen actors in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond have breakdowns over less. But it took stepping on a nail to make him lose his cool.”
Akash plays “man cub’’ Mowgli in “The Jungle Book,” a musical about an orphaned boy in the Indian jungle and the anthropomorphic animals who either want to help him or eat him. The world premiere coproduction, which just ended a sold-out seven-week run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, begins previews at the Huntington Theatre Company on Sept. 7. Adapted from Disney’s animated 1967 film and stories by Rudyard Kipling, it is being directed by Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman, who directed “Candide” at the Huntington in 2011.
THE JUNGLE BOOK
In Boston, “The Jungle Book” will run at least through Oct. 13.
From there, who knows? After Boston, decisions about the future of “The Jungle Book” may rest with Disney Theatrical Productions, which is helping to finance it. The show, or some version of it, could be headed abroad before a possible run on Broadway, according to Variety.
‘I just love being onstage . . . and playing with the monkeys.’
As for Akash, he could be on the cusp of a promising acting career, and even stardom. But it’s not so clear yet if he wants any of it.
In person, there’s nothing about Akash that indicates he’s anything but a normal, unambitious boy. He rolls into the Goodman Theatre on a scooter, his younger sister Avaani riding close behind. He’s friendly and outgoing, but otherwise nothing about him seems rehearsed or forced — behavior we’ve come to expect from child actors. When asked about his acting process, his answer is exactly what you’d want a 10-year-old to say. “I just pretend that I’m Mowgli and that I’m in the jungle,” he says. “I just love being onstage and being tossed around and playing with the monkeys.”
His mother, Meena, is quick to point out that Akash hasn’t been a professional actor for very long. A little over two years ago, he was just another kid doing school plays. When his parents moved from Spain to New York City in 2011, Akash started taking acting classes. That led to headshots and auditions, and soon he landed a role as Gavroche, the street urchin, in the Kidz Theater production of “Les Misérables.” And then, seemingly overnight, he was cast as the lead in “The Jungle Book.” (He shares the role with Roni Akurati, who takes over as Mowgli a couple times a week.)
“It’s still dizzying,” Meena says. “I still haven’t quite processed it.”
Given Akash’s limited acting experience, “The Jungle Book” production team had every reason to be cautious. Akash was put through several auditions in New York City, because as music director Doug Peck puts it, “If you’re going to marry someone, you want to go on at least a couple of dates first.” Any reservations or concerns that Akash might not be up to the task were quickly dispelled, Peck says. “Every interview and every audition, Akash was poised and funny and totally himself. He never wavered.”
Akash’s performance in “The Jungle Book” isn’t exactly a tour de force. He does more reacting than acting — costar Carolan calls him the show’s “straight man” — and he never gets his own song. But the reviews for Akash have been consistently glowing. Entertainment Weekly praised his “impressive naturalism.” A reviewer for Chicago’s New City noted that Akash is “amazingly empowered for such a young actor. I’ve witnessed far more experienced actors’ confidence waver on the [Goodman] stage, but each and every step that Chopra takes is remarkable in its assurance.” The Chicago Sun Times gushed like a proud grandparent, calling Akash’s performance “so free and easy, moody and defiant, joyfully natural and musical that you just want to squeeze his adorable little body and save him from the predatory tiger.”
The audiences thus far have agreed. During one recent Saturday matinee at the Goodman, Akash, as Mowgli, declared to his animal protectors, “I’m a lot tougher than some people think!” The crowd, equal parts children and adults, responded with an audible “Awwww!”
It’s a good year to be a child theater actor. Right now on Broadway, nearly half of the shows feature actors who aren’t old enough to drive. There are 10 orphan children in the “Annie” revival, and 16 misbehaving kids in “Matilda the Musical.” Some of the biggest marquee names this season include 11-year-old Victoria Leigh, making her Broadway debut in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” 10-year-old Darius Kaleb in “Motown the Musical,” 12-year-old Marquise Neal in “Kinky Boots,” and Nicholas Barasch, practically an elder statesman at 14, in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
There are so many underage actors, Neil Patrick Harris made them a punch line while hosting the 2013 Tony Awards. “Is there a Tony day care where all of you go?” he sang to the army of Broadway kids. “Do your parents set aside your Broadway dough?”
For Akash, at least, the answer to that last question is yes. “It’s all going into his account,” Meena says of her son’s acting pay. “When he’s 40, maybe we’ll give it to him. He’ll get it when he’s older and more sensible. At 10, he’d spend it all on Xbox games.”
Akash doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, all of the stresses and disappointments that can accompany an actor’s life don’t appear to have much effect on him. Though he’s been away from his home and school in Manhattan — “I do miss my friends sometimes,” he admits — he finds the gypsy lifestyle more exciting than lonely. It helps that he’s already a globe-trotter. His father, Perry, a property developer, has moved the family — which includes Akash, his mother and sister, and two older brothers, Amar and Rishi — among several countries.
Akash, who is Indian, was born in Singapore, moved to Spain with his family when he was about 4, then to New York two years ago.
While he may already be perfectly adapted to the acting lifestyle, he hasn’t decided yet if this is the life he wants. “A part of me wants to be a sports player, like in basketball or soccer,” he says. “I still don’t know what I’m going to do.” Which is just another reason his colleagues at “The Jungle Book” find him so fascinating. Peck, the show’s music director, works regularly with children and teenagers, and he’s accustomed to seeing “kids who are on a robotic mission to only be perfect little theater people.”
“They all desperately want to be actors, and the question is, do they have the talent? Akash unquestionably has the talent, both as an actor and a singer,” Peck says. “It’s just a question of if he wants it.”
A lot could happen to Akash while he waits to make a decision — some of it good, some of it not so good. It’s difficult not to think of Daisy Eagan, an 11-year-old Tony winner in 1991 who went on to have a nervous breakdown and quit acting for years. Meena Chopra is well aware of the risks. “It’s a brutal industry for any age. As a parent, it’s my job to guide him in the right direction, and keep his feet firmly on the ground.” While considering Eagan’s fate, she pauses and looks at her son with a combination of love and deep concern. “I still favor him being a doctor,” she says, under her breath.
Akash listens to all of this, smiling and unfazed. If he’s grappling with conflicting emotions or uncertainty, he’s a better actor than even the show’s reviewers realize. “If I want to stop, I’ll just stop,” he says of his tenure at “The Jungle Book.” “If it’s ever not as much fun anymore, I’ll just walk away.”
Walking away from acting and performing might not be as easy as he thinks. He may not be a seasoned actor yet, but he clearly loves to perform. He talks about a song he’s written for his school in New York; it’s kind of a school anthem, he says. He’s collaborated with the father of a classmate, music producer Mikkel Eriksen — part of the Stargate songwriting and producing team who have penned hits for Beyoncé and Rihanna.
“Should I sing the first verse?” he asks, eager to share.
The song, sung a cappella, is so beautiful it would give you goosebumps. It’s confident and unexpectedly soulful. Most of the lyrics are what you’d expect from a 10-year-old writing about his school — he waxes poetic about “shooting stars” and the “city’s beat” — but the last few lines just might be prescient, maybe more than Akash even knows yet.
“I’ve finally found who I’m gonna be,” he sings. “Here is the story of me.”