André De Shields :: Channeling Louis (as in Armstrong) in ’The Jungle Book’
The chattering, arboreal primates swing through the jungle foliage (charmingly represented by hanging, moveable flats depicting many hued, enormous blossoms from Daniel Ostling). They are carrying the little boy Mowgli, whom they’ve kidnapped, back to their orangutan camp grounds.
We’re nearing the boisterous mayhem, jazz stomp climax of Act One.
This peep into 19th century India is Mary Zimmerman’s glorious riff on the Disney Animated Film of "The Jungle Book" and the stories of Rudyard Kipling that inspired the 1967 family movie. It’s a co-production between Goodman Theatre of Chicago and Huntington Theatre Company and is now playing at the BU Theatre on Huntington Ave. through Oct. 20.
The chittering tribe plunks Mowgli down in front of their leader, King Louie, a swinger like them if not more so! (André De Shields in a show-stopper performance that’s an homage to jazz trumpeter/singer Louis Armstrong while also being an equally brilliant anthropomorphic realization of the intelligent "person of the forest," the Malay word for orangutan).
The fearsome king is resplendent in a red and gold royal robe (the costumes from Mara Blumenfeld should go to the Smithsonian when the show finally rings down the curtain).
He stares down from his considerable height at little Mowgli (acted by Akash Chopra as if this adventure, moment to moment, were the most fun a little boy could possibly have).
"I want your red flower!" King Louie imperiously, threateningly demands, convinced that if he has the secret to making fire, he would rule the jungle.
Mowgli says forthrightly that he doesn’t have the secret.
King Louie taps the child on the head with his long, curved tapering finger.
"It’s in your dome!"
But Mowgli, a feral child who’d been raised by a wolf pack, is unconvinced that he holds that knowledge.
Frustrated, King Louie swings his massive head of rust colored dreads impatiently, and, momentarily at a loss, stamps away in frustration, a movement the others of his tribe pick up on and emulate.
Their jazzy rhythm is echoed by a trumpet blaring musician (Victor Garcia) and saxophonist Juli Wood who have emerged from the orchestra pit to join the ensemble on stage.
Wilding ensues. A mix of Indian and jazz and blues played to the hilt under the direction of Doug Peck whose arrangements are new but whose respect for the songs we already love is welcome too. In this instance, it’s a high octane version of "I Wanna Be Like You" by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.
EDGE spoke with Mr. De Shields by phone recently about the appeal playing the role has for him. De Shields, born in 1945 in Baltimore, has appeared on Broadway in award nominated performances from "The Full Monty" to "Ain’t Misbehavin’" and "The Wiz" (title role), among many other parts. More locally, he’s been a favorite at the Cape Playhouse in a number of shows. He also is noted for his dramatic portrayals such as the title role in "Caligula" at the Classical Theatre of Harlem.
He said that even before the auditions for "The Jungle Book," Mary Zimmerman contacted his agent. She and De Shields met casually for a chat.
"She wanted to know if I was interested in collaborating with her on ’Jungle Book’" said De Shields, "and, if so, which role would I would be interested in playing ----Bagheera, the panther; Shere Kahn, the tiger; Kaa, the cobra, or King Louie."
That put the ball in De Shields’s court for playing what had been at the time of the making of the Disney movie a controversial role.
De Shields commented that "when Walt Disney made the movie, he wanted Louis Armstrong to be the voice of King Louie.
"But there was a strong objection from the NAACP (which was looking through a lens of racism at having a black man be the voice for a species of apes)," continued De Shields, "and so Disney decided to go with Louis Prima instead." (Prima, of Sicilian background and from New Orleans, was inspired to play jazz after hearing Louis Armstrong).
De Shields said he feels, "now is the time to blow up this stereotype" and give one of the most influential players in jazz history, Louis Armstrong, his due.
Although, as De Shields points out, the character of King Louie does not exist in the Kipling stories for this writer, the role with the orangutan’s slyness and vaunted ambition comes closer to the note of anxiety that fuses the excitement of Kipling’s tales than many of the other animals do.
De Shields says in agreement, that the song "I Want To Be Like You" for him refers on the larger stage of life to controlling the planet (which parallels the character in "The Jungle Book"’s ambition to gain the power of fire and so rule his domain).
The actor finds the music "absolutely intoxicating" and he enjoys the re-imagining of the Disney classic by Zimmerman with Greg Pope’s arrangements to create "an Indian world."
He also praises the "multi-culturalism and ethnic diversity" of the production.
He adds that how the black community in this day and age will respond to his portraying King Louie will likely be varied. "We are not monolithic and we have many contradictions."
For himself, however, this role is an opportunity to give Louis Armstrong "his props" all these years later.
"Why not give him his due" says De Shields.
"The Jungle Book" continues thru Oct. 20 at the Huntington’s main stage, the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. For more info you can phone 617-266-0800 or go on-line to www.huntingtontheatre.org..