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‘Jungle Book’ Disney’s Next Big Broadway Hit?

Tuner has potential but there’s concern it may be too similar in tone to the Mouse’s 'Lion King' juggernaut

Broadway observers can be forgiven for being skeptical when Disney Theatrical Prods. says it’s taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the latest Mouse House-affiliated stage outing, “The Jungle Book.”

After all, the company initially said it was developing legit versions of “Newsies” and “Aladdin” for licensing purposes rather than out of any Main Stem ambitions. But the well-received “Newsies” soon snowballed onto Broadway and “Aladdin,” which bowed in Seattle in 2011, will make its way there in 2014.

Jungle Book,” which pairs arty helmer Mary Zimmerman (“Metamorphoses”) with the 1967 animated pic and the Rudyard Kipling tale, bears some superficial resemblance to “The Lion King,” the legit juggernaut that also matched a wellknown property with a helmer with a signature style (in that case, Julie Taymor).

But it’s the similarities to “Lion King” that may be what ultimately keeps “Jungle Book” away from the Rialto — at least for the foreseeable future. What seems more certain, at least at this stage in the project’s development, are the international plans that Disney has in mind for the stage incarnation of the adventures of boy-cub Mowgli, bear Baloo and panther Bagheera.

The world premiere production of “Jungle Book” — which fleshes out the story and songs of the film with Indian orchestrations as well as other material drawn from Kipling and from the tale’s setting — is a co-production between Chicago’s Goodman Theater and Boston’s Huntington Theater, with Disney ponying up enhancement coin.

Response to the tuner’s debut in Chicago, where the show has just extended for the third time, suggests there’s a strong consumer appetite for the title, and the upcoming fall run at the Huntington will offer a further chance to field-test the show.

But Disney types are aware that with “The Lion King” a massive international legit property, they’ve already seemingly cornered the Broadway market on inventively staged musicals in which humans dress up as animals and sing. Still booming in Gotham, “Lion King” could suck the Broadway oxygen away from the newer project.

“ ‘Jungle Book’ isn’t ‘Lion King,’ but it does bump up against it, and we have to be careful of that,” says Thomas Schumacher, the prexy and producer at Disney Theatrical.

The exec adds that there’s enormous interest in “Jungle Book” from Disney’s European partners, so that seems to be the first route to explore for future life, either as a licensed replica of the Zimmerman staging or as a separate production of the musical’s book, score and orchestrations.

The show’s cultural influences make it a no-brainer for the Indian market, a region where Disney has put a lot of corporate focus in recent years. Schumacher did acknowledge that he has a trip to India on the books later this year to explore whether there’s a place there for “Jungle Book” or “Lion King” or any of the company’s other stage properties.

For now, though, it’s clear that “Jungle Book” has struck a chord with Windy City auds. That’s already a payoff for a creatively risky endeavor that saw Disney put the musical into the hands of a director whose famously collaborative working method means she doesn’t start writing a script until she’s in the room with her cast.

The final product may be, for legiters familiar with Zimmerman’s work, surprisingly faithful to the film. “When you take the songs, character and plot come with them,” she explains of the show. But she was also given free rein to tinker with the movie’s episodic nature: “I tried to add a sense of return in the structure, to bring a sense of completion and satisfaction.”

With a catalog full of musical titles that legit auds around the world want to see onstage, Disney Theatrical can afford to be sanguine about where the show ends up, particularly considering that licensing is proving to be just as viable a route to making money on a stage property as Broadway or international incarnations.

Disney’s approach on “Jungle Book” reps a change from its collaboration on the musical “Aida,” according to Goodman a.d. Robert Falls. Falls directed one of that show’s regional tryouts at the Goodman (following its 1998 preem in Atlanta), as well as the final Rialto production that ran from 2000 to 2004.

“That was a multimillion-dollar musical clearly earmarked for Broadway,” Falls says.

“ ‘Jungle Book’ has been so different. On this, there’s no such pressure.”

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