We’re almost through The Jungle Book, having covered the chapters on the show’s origins, the book and the score and the staging of the 2013 production that has been the focus of this month’s Forgotten Musicals Friday. This week, we’re taking a look at The Jungle Book “look” and how the show came to life through its scenic design and costumes.
One idea that came to the foreground in last week’s column was the stylisation of the production in its combination of influences from Rudyard Kipling’s original book, through its Indian setting to Disney’s film adaptation. The stylisation required to marry these elements is also an element that Dan Ostling picked up in the production’s scenic design. Ostling’s set evoked a Victorian toy theatre, its shifting drops decorated with stylised paintings of trees, shrubbery and flowers. The colours and patterns are reminiscent of the Indian painting style the creative team must have observed on their research trip to India. As individual pieces, the set pieces were all gorgeous.
When it came together, the scenic design missed the all-important sense of achieving a coup de théâtre. The transition from the Victorian drawing room, in which Mowgli dozes off while reading The Jungle Book as part of a framework that Zimmerman added to the material, to the jungles of India should have been breathtaking. Instead, the mechanism was apparent rather than its effect. The same is true of another crucial new moment in the show, the death of Shere Khan by fire. The aim was for the design and staging to come together with T. J. Gerckens’s lighting design to create a striking transition from the physical plane of life into the spiritual one. The idea is clear, but the execution lacks absolute clarity and a true sense of wonder in such a significant moment.
Another significant factor in creating the visual world of The Jungle Book is Mara Blumenfeld’s costume design. Blumenfeld’s designs abstract an easily identifiable visual feature of each animal, and she then builds the costume around it. Her approach reinforces Mary Zimmerman’s concept of the material as something that takes place within a child’s imagination. The audience remains aware of the actors playing animals; their imagination fills in the gaps, so they are complicit in constructing Mowgli’s world of fantasy.
In the show’s design, it is clear that there was more The Jungle Book could have done. While one certainly wouldn’t want a duplication of the kind of theatricality that Julie Taymor infused into The Lion King, I think something that aims for the same level of mastery is what this show needed to take it to the next level. It is one thing that could have transformed the audience’s response into something that would have twisted Thomas Schumacher’s arm to make The Jungle Book another Newsies instead of another The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In the final chapter of our The Jungle Book series, we’ll consider the legacy of the show, also looking at some of the challenges of creating a show with such a complex cultural history.