September 30, 2013

THE POWER OF DUFF and the Power of Prayer

“Uniquely comic and unabashedly theatrical, The Power of Duff also pulses with incredible emotional clarity. It tells the transformative story of one man waking up to life, just as it seemed he was too lost and it was too late.”— Peter DuBois
Anthropologist T.M. Luhrman noted in The New York Times that “These days we Americans live not only with political schismogenesis, but also religious schismogenesis.” Schismogenesis describes “mirroring reactions,” such as when you are in an argument and everything the opposing side says just makes you dig your heels in deeper. A common occurrence of this: basically every argument on the internetShe points out that lately, the extremes — pro-religion vs. atheists — have been entrenched in a battle that doesn’t reflect the reality of American belief. With The Power of Duff, playwright Stephen Belber has stepped gently into one of those areas of American life that doesn’t garner headlines or fallacious comparison in the comment section. He’s written a heartfelt drama dealing with, among other things, the quiet inexplicability of our spiritual life and how it plays out in our relationship with others.
Belber was inspired by a Time magazine article about religion in America reporting that 95% of Americas believe in God. While not surprised by the statistic, it made him consider writing a character who accesses the public’s faith in an unlikely way.
The Power of Duff tells the story of Charlie Duff, an aging, cynical news anchor in Rochester, New York, who has lost his ambition and his family. One night, on impulse, he closes his broadcast with a brief, sincere prayer. He continues to offer prayers, to the objection of his colleagues, when he learns that the local community is comforted and mobilized to acts of charity by his statements. The community effect of Charlie’s prayer is central to Belber’s concept of the play: “I was indeed interested in the idea of prayer being answered by a community rather than a ‘higher power.’ . . . [considering] what is possible if those 19 out of 20 Americans who believe in God actually put their spirituality to work.”
According to Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life the percentage of believers in the United States has been remarkably steady over time, but more and more Americans eschew organized religion altogether (12%). Close to 70% of that group profess a belief in God, and one in five say they pray daily. Charlie Duff falls neatly into this group of the religiously unaffiliated who nonetheless express religious or spiritual feeling, even down to his use of an unlikely platform. Or as Charlie puts it, “I guess I’ve always been suspicious. [Of] Some sort of . . . force. To be reckoned with.”
Perhaps Charlie Duff’s brush with prayer is best characterized by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s formulation: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Charlie’s sudden spiritual and emotional openness doesn’t just change the city of Rochester; it also changes him. It doesn’t perfect him, but by reaching out to others and being reached out to in turn, he finds the courage to attempt a reconciliation, to reach for wholeness.

August 22, 2013


Name: Akash Chopra
Role: Mowgli
Hometown: New York City, New York
What has been your favorite moment while performing The Jungle Book? Opening night was magical and I will never forget it.
How are you like your character? Mowgli is exciting and like's adventure. He tries different things, and I think I am the same.
 Who is your favorite character from The Jungle Book? My favorite character is Baloo. He is so much fun.

Name: André De Shields
Role: Akela and King Louie
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
What has been your favorite moment while performing The Jungle Book? My favorite moment while performing in The Jungle Book is the contagion of joy that infects the entire audience at the end of Act 1, as King Louie sings "I Wanna Be Like You."
 How are you like your character? I am like my character of Akela in terms of his stoicism, inherent skills of leadership, and craving of solitude. On the flip side, I match my character of King Louie in exuberance, elegance, extravagance, and swank swag.
What is your childhood memory of watching The Jungle BookMy childhood memory of watching The Jungle Book is not of the Disney animated film, but rather the 1942 Technicolor feature, directed by Zoltan Korda and featuring the East Indian child star, Sabu Dagastir, as Mowgli the Man-Cub.     
Who is your favorite character from The Jungle Book? My favorite character is King Louie, which character — by the way — is a Disney creation, and does not appear in either the 1942 film or the original Rudyard Kipling story.

Name: Kevin Carolan
Hometown: I was born in the Bronx, New York, but grew up in a small town in northern New Jersey named Wanaque. I've lived mostly in New Jersey ever since.
What has been your favorite moment while performing The Jungle Book? My favorite moment inThe Jungle Book might be the top of Act II, when I get to sing "Baloo’s Blues," a song written and recorded for The Jungle Book film, but not used in the feature. Premiering a "new" Sherman Brothers song is an incredible thrill and an honor, but it’s my favorite because it’s such a great song, and I really love singing it!
How are you like your character? It would be easy for me to say I'm like Baloo because we're both kind of lazy, and we both like to have the "bare necessities" come to us. However, Baloo and I have a great fondness for being a mentor to a young child. My son, Jack, is the same age as Mowgli, and I enjoy spending as much time with him as Baloo does with Mowgli.
What is your childhood memory of watching The Jungle Book? My childhood memory of The Jungle Book is the music. That's what I remember taking away from it, specifically the scat section between King Louis and Baloo in "I Wanna Be Like You." I remember trying to scat along with them and never being able to get the sounds to match up! But it didn't stop me from trying!
Who is your favorite character from The Jungle Book? My favorite Jungle Bookcharacter has to be Baloo. As a child, I identified more with Mowgli, but always looked up to that great “papa bear,” as it reminded me of my relationship with my own dad. And now to have the chance to BE Baloo? It fills me with great joy.

Name: Tommy Derrah
Role: Kaa and others
Hometown: Born in Portland, Maine / Raised in Cape Elizabeth, Maine
What has been your favorite moment while performing The Jungle Book? At the end of Act 1, André De Shields performs “I Wanna Be Like You” while most of us play monkeys. The number ends frantically and the audience erupts with applause. The lights come up and we're all lying on the floor panting, sweating, and usually laughing!
Who is your favorite character from The Jungle Book? I have to say Kaa, because I’m playing him, but I love Bagheera because he’s patient and smart, and Mowgli, because I think we can all identify with his plight; trying to find where he belongs.

August 19, 2013

The Sights & Sounds of India: Re-Imagining THE JUNGLE BOOK

The Jungle Book creative team at the Taj Mahal: TJ Gerkens, Dan Ostling, Ajay Rathore Singh, Leo Chiang, Mara Blumenfeld, and Doug Peck.
When Disney Theatrical Group conceived of a stage version of the classic 1967 film The Jungle Book, they easily could have set out to create a replica of the movie that for decades has captivated generations of children with its celebratory music and lovable characters. Instead, they tapped Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman, one of theatre’s most innovative directors, to reimagine their hit as a wholly original new work to be felt and experienced live at the theatre.
The Jungle Book has many of the hallmarks of a Mary Zimmerman adaptation. But this production posed additional complexity for the adaptation, as it draws from not one but two sources — both the 1894 Rudyard Kipling stories and the 1967 Disney animated film. Tonally, Kipling’s stories are poetic and his jungle is at times dark and violent, while in contrast, the Disney movie, set to the jubilant sounds of American swing and jazz, is fun and celebratory.
In the process of exploring how to balance the divergent elements of her two sources, Zimmerman found inspiration in Kipling’s personal biography: he was born in Bombay to English parents and lived in India until he was six years old when his parents sent him back in England. There, they left him in the care of a woman who ran a school out of her home, and, unbeknownst to them, physically and emotionally abused him until he left at age 10. Years later, when Kipling was a newly-married adult living in Vermont, he wrote the stories of The Jungle Book.

Nikka Graff Lanzarone as Peacock in The Jungle Book. Photo: Liz Lauren
“There is an almost desperate energy behind the creation of this world that was psychologically necessary for him,” Zimmerman said. “The romanticization and exoticism of India that he’s come to be criticized for, he’s come about in a well-earned way: he was born there and he lost it. He lost India as a child, and a child about the age of Mowgli.” Zimmerman drew from the stark contrast between Kipling’s happy early childhood in India and his fraught later years in England to establish the emotional tenor of the production. “I want the audience to experience the joy of that music and of living in a world where you are one with nature and the animals — even with all its dangers and its troubles. And also the recognition that you can’t stay there.”
In order to create her living jungle, Zimmerman and her team plunged into their design process, which is research heavy, immersive, and highly collaborative. She almost always works with the same design team — set designer Daniel Ostling, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, and lighting designer T.J. Gerckens. When creating The Jungle Book, Zimmerman immediately recognized the need to honor its setting through design. “My very first impulse when this idea came up was to take the forms of Indian representation — visual and musical — seriously within the aesthetic of doing the show.” In order to capture the sights and sounds of Kipling’s India, the team spent two and a half weeks traversing the country — visiting 10 cities in one trip — listening to music on the streets, gathering textiles at markets, interacting with indigenous animals, and taking “thousands and thousands” of photographs.

Monique Haley (Elephant), Akash Chopra (Mowgli), Ed Kross (Colonel Hathi), and Anjali Bhimani (Baby Elephant) with the rest of Colonel Hathi’s elephant army in The Jungle Book. Photo: Liz Lauren
The world that appears on stage will be infused with the spirit of its setting as filtered through the eyes of the design team. “We’re not hoping to create a museum-like replication, because it’s a work of intense imagination — almost florid imagination — on both Kipling’s and Disney’s part,” Zimmerman said. “We’re going for inspiration in forms, colors, pattern, shape, and volume of things — it penetrates the design at every level and in every scene.” And though The Jungle Book sprang out of a familiar film with iconic animation and music, this new version promises its own unforgettable experience, alive with the spirit of its inspiration and saturated with the sights and sounds of India.
This article originally appeared in Goodman Theatre’s OnStage publication.

August 12, 2013


“I was blown away by Mary Zimmerman’s transporting and visually stunning production. It immediately reminded me of what I love about her work – her big heart, sophisticated mind, and playful imagination. In this latest creation, she brilliantly interweaves Kipling’s evocative prose with the story of the classic film and marries traditional Indian instruments to its jazzy, instantly recognizable tunes. It’s a dream!”— Peter DuBois
Songwriter Richard Sherman and his brother Robert had not read Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories when they were called into a meeting by Walt Disney to contribute to the development of a movie of The Jungle Book. It turns out that neither had any of the other animators or writers on the project. When Disney asked who of his team was familiar with the stories, not a person in the room raised his hand. “It was like a bunch of guys in school that hadn’t done their homework,” Richard Sherman remembers.

Music Director and Orchestrator Doug Peck in rehearsal for The Jungle Book.
Disney’s response? “Well, that’s good.” His reaction was genuine, as he wanted to create a film that discarded the dark, heavy mood of Kipling’s stories and instead embraced the delight that could be wrought from a medley of animal characters. The joy that infused the movie’s score with a playful spirit is one of the key elements adapter and director Mary Zimmerman strove to maintain in her new musical production.
The show, produced in association with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, features seven songs from the Disney film including “The Bare Necessities” by Terry Gilkyson, never-before-heard songs by the award-winning Sherman Brothers, and more. “It’s going to be wonderful for the audience because they’ve never heard these songs before,” Sherman says. Music Director and Orchestrator Doug Peck has incorporated Indian sounds and underscoring based on themes from the film, as well as Indian ragas and dance music.
Peck believes that the music will prove even more powerful onstage than in the movie, especially as the production includes onstage musicians who will be encouraged to improvise throughout the run. “In the theatre, you are in the same acoustic space and can sometimes see the player or players creating the underscoring,” he says. “You are inherently more aware of the music, which can sometimes function on a more unconscious level on film. In some ways, I function both as arranger/orchestrator and editor helping players maintain a consistency that the cast can dance to, but also a freedom to explore their improvs from show to show.” The instrumentation consists of traditional western instruments such as a piano and drum set, as well as Indian snake trumpets, Carnatic violin, sitar, veena, tablas, ghattam, dholak, dhol, and other Indian percussion. Much of the Indian essence that Peck has infused into the score derives from the trip the creative team took to India.
The songs from the movie invite this added flavor, as each already has its own unique musical style that corresponds to the various species of animals. For instance, King Louie the Orangutan was conceived as a jazzman, so his number, “I Wanna Be Like You,” naturally fit as a swing piece.
The Sherman Brothers incorporated elements of Kipling’s stories and introduced whimsy and lightness to them, as per Disney’s instructions. Hathi, leader of the elephants, became Colonel Hathi, an officer in the British Raj who leads the militaristic “Colonel Hathi’s March.” The song plays with elephants’ natural galumph. As Sherman says, “It was all borne out of Walt’s desire for us to have fun.”
— Ali Leskowitz