Outcry erupted. Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director of the Chicago theatrical troupe Silk Road Rising, called her out on what he described as "her reckless, unexamined Orientalism." One online commenter argued that "there are too many white people in general in this industry who dictate creative decision making and are quite reckless when it comes to responsibly portraying the cultures of others that are not their own."
Eventually, responding by email to Khoury, Zimmerman addressed the complaints. "The phrase 'Racism is in the eye of the beholder' is completely preposterous and I disavow it," she wrote. "Here is what happened: We were talking about the Disney film and King Louie, an orangutan. She asked me about this character and how he has been sometimes named as a "racist character" which many people believe was voiced by Louis Armstrong, but was in fact conceived for and voiced by Louis Prima, a white Italian American. I challenged the assumption that King Louie is a derogatory depiction of a black man given that what is on the screen is only an ape, drawn in a style consistent with all Disney animation of the period, voiced by a white musician, singing to a little Indian boy...It is more accurate to say that the ‘race’ of the animated King Louis is in the eye of the beholder..."
While bruised in the public eye, Zimmerman's production seemed to recover. Ticket sales in both Chicago and Boston were strong, with both venues extending the musical's run. (Disney Theatricals president Thomas Schumacher recently scotched rumors that Zimmerman's production was headed for Times Square to take its place alongside Lion King, though he said he is actively scouting international stages after the Jungle Book's American regional theate run.)
On stage, Zimmerman has handled the tricky material well. The exoticism of the story no longer seems derived from racial or imperialist undercurrents but rather from the fantasy of the tale itself: This is a world where human children become best friends with talking animals. While Zimmerman hews to the cheery, character-driven Disney narrative that streamlines Kipling's episodic plot, she has given some of the jungle's animals back stories and reinforced the significance of their quest for the "red flower," fire. Andre De Shields (The Wiz, The Full Monty) plays the aging wolf pack leader Akela, and his watchful gravitas in that role leavens any discomfort an audience might have as he returns as King Louie, long dreadlocks swinging like a zoological Bobby McFerrin while flowers and teacups fly through the air.
The show's jungle is also more culturally and geographically rooted than the animated version's was. Zimmerman and her long-time team of collaborators used some of Disney's money for research trips to India, and this Jungle Book is drenched in Indian-inspired details. Music director Doug Peck adds splashes of curry to Disney's New Orleans gumbo, rescoring Terry Gilkyson’s "Bare Necessities" and Richard and Robert Sherman's "I Wanna Be Like You" and "Trust in Me" for a 12-piece combo that includes Chicago jazz musicians and classical Indian instrumentalists playing sitar, carnatic violin, and a variety of authentic percussion instruments. The set by Dan Ostling and costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, opulent by regional-theater standards, offer a riot of saturated turquoise and coral paisleys, florals and tiger stripes with the distinctive silhouettes of raj-period costume: sherwani and turbans, military uniforms and pith helmets. With a multicultural cast and the introduction of substantive female characters including of a peacock, a mother wolf, and butterflies, Zimmerman counterbalances the Disney animation's nearly all-male dramatis personae.