By Sid Smith
There are multiple charms to Mary Zimmerman's production of "The Jungle Book" now at the Goodman Theatre, but the contributions of choreographer Christopher Gattelli are surely among them.
The whole outing is a giant team effort, well-steered by Zimmerman, but involving a sizeable group of artists, the dancing no exception. Gattelli worked with associate choreographer Lou Castro, and Chicago area classical Indian dance specialist Hema Rajagopalan served as a consultant.
An unwieldy stew fashioned by a committee might have been the result, but Zimmerman is an old hand at collaboration and shapes it all into a pleasing and organic whole. There are thoughts it may have a Broadway future, and Gattelli is eminently qualified there, a Tony Award-winner for his "Newsies" with credits including the acclaimed "South Pacific" revival.
And yet, in what may sound a contradiction, much of the beauties of the dancing and everything else about "Jungle Book" is its easy affinity with the setting it finds itself in right now. This is a lovely resident theater production, capitalizing on the intimacy and intelligence of the Goodman, the dancing included. There's only the occasional flash of Broadway splash, of dervish-worthy pirouettes designed to make the audience gape. It's as if Gattelli put all his energy into charm, color and sheer imagination, not militaristic drive and propulsion -- those latter a frequent shortcoming of today's Broadway choreographic approach.
Instead, the dances in "Jungle Book," while topnotch from the technical angle, delight you with pastiche, whimsy, character and a word I'll repeat: charm.
If the show has a future life, some of this will be tinkered with, expanded and goosed to busier levels--the absolutely spectacularly finale Gattelli serves up now is actually the curtain call, and it may instead wind up in the show itself, for instance. Rajagopalan's work could also be enhanced and even better integrated into the production.
But, as is, "Jungle Book" is a very enjoyable choreographic entertainment, and if viewed strictly as a dance-concert-within-a-Broadway-show, one sure to please musical dance enthusiasts.
The most memorable number, including the fantastic curtain call, is the Act I finale, wherein the performers are mostly cast as monkeys. Buoyed by the terrific singing lead provided by Andre De Shields, the selection is a fast-moving, richly detailed field day of pastiche, anthropomorphism and wild-and-crazy choral kaleidoscope.
And yet even here Gattelli relies on authentic tradition more than spread-out razzmatazz--swing and percussive insinuations invigorate this number. You can always judge dance by how many times you want to see it again, a major faction in concert repertory dancing. We won't know how much that's true of this number, but my guess, with all the cast zooming about the stage and enacting all sorts of monkey shenanigans mixed with dance ingenuity, is that it will fascinate the repeat viewer as much as the novice--it struck me as impossible to digest in a single viewing.
There are some nice moments, too, when the performers are cast as elephants, one particularly choice formation, for instance, wherein one player is treated to a ballet-like choral lift. Gattelli's role in staging smaller numbers seems just as choice--the tweaks and antics of the basically two-man "Bare Necessities" enactment, charged with illustrating the show's most famous song, are well-crafted and entertaining while balanced by a fine quotient of intelligent restraint.
The Act II snake number, in which the dancers clad in black carry colored balloons, is perhaps not as engaging as it should be. And the big climax, when the villain is carried away to an extraterrestrial destiny, needs refinement, though that's an overall design issue as much as a dance and movement staging one.
But the bow is something else, one of those make-them-leave-the-theater-singing-and-dancing sendoffs that have been around since "Hairspray" and probably longer. They get you on your feet, none more so than Usman Ally, charged with playing one of the show's more cerebral and cautious characters--until this bow, when he lights up the jungle sky.