It’s a jungle out there! Two powerful productions take us for a walk on the wild side– of politics, and a child’s imagination!

THE JUNGLE BOOK the Huntington Theatre Company’s season opener is based on Rudyard Kipling’s stories by way of Walt Disney’s animated musical of a boy who can talk to the animals! Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman has turned the tale into a thing of beauty and wonder onstage, and taken the story back, past its cultural history to its archetypal roots as a fable about the wild child in each of us who is gradually lost the older and more civilized we become.

The musical opens like a book — with a child reading– and we are swept into the story as the stage opens up and an elegant and very tall peacock wafts the young reader and the audience into an ancient and mysterious jungle paradise. I was immediately stunned by its astonishing physical beauty, lushly redolent of the saturated hues of a shimmering Indian sunset. The tale is that of a “man-cub” named Mowgli who grows up free and alive among the animals, able to understand them and be understood. The young actor who played Mowgli on opening night –Akash Chopra– was himself a miracle of unfettered abandon. He brought a loose, funny, wholly natural winsomeness to the part which is too often missing from overly-mannered child actors who’ve had the spontaneity rehearsed out of them. This kid seems like he’s making it all up on a whim and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

There are other amazing performances– most notably that of Andre De Shields as Akela and King Louie– who brings the house down at the end of ACT I with his loose limbs, scat vocals, ultra cool elan, and a crew of silly, swingin’ monkeys.  There are seven songs from the original Disney movie, plus a twelve person orchestra including six Indian and six jazz musicians who fuse a sound that prompts choreography from classic Indian dance, to tap, swing, and acrobatics, and is in turn mirrored by a melange of musical styles from barbershop quartet to swing and jazz.

The characters are vivid and endearing, especially Kevin Carolan as the bear Baloo, and Tommy Derrah’s slithery snake Kaa (and the absolutely ingenious way the rest of him is invented onstage).  Only Larry Yando’s relentless tiger Shere Khan left me cold. Some of the numbers go on a bit –I’d had snoot full of the trumpeting elephants-clever as that is–long before they were done.  But by the end of ACT II, I was higher than a kite, and in tears for my lost youth and dimly remembered but soulfully longed for primitive self. Mary Zimmerman’s genius is in somehow bringing it all together– DISNEY and FABLE (as in, the stories we tell ourselves about what it is to be human) all in one place before our very eyes.

Do not miss THE JUNGLE BOOK extended by popular demand at the Huntington Theatre Company through October 20!

Which brings me to the wilds of Washington D.C.–and the American Repertory Theater’s first production of the season: ALL THE WAY by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan and starring three time Emmy winner and star of this season’s Emmy award winning best drama, “Breaking Bad”– Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The play begins with LBJ thrust into the presidency after the seismic shock of JFK’s assassination. Cranston, though lacking the physical heft of the 36th President, immediately radiates the Texan’s outsize passion, ferocity, and political acumen, as well as the powerful moral constitution of a man who would fight to the death to win, all the while struggling to remain on the right side of an issue of conscience.  His presidency –born of a bloody moment– would be characterized by some of the most contentious and visceral political battles of the century, swirling around civil rights, and eventually the gut-wrenching Vietnam war that would ultimately kill his presidency and re-split the country.

But out of the gate,  LBJ was in it to win, and his toughest contest was the fight to win his first election while somehow not alienating his own southern democrats who had to be dragged  kicking and screaming into the light of a new day which demanded equal rights for black and white. Johnson described politics as “a knife fight” and it often drew blood– his own. Cranston holds that stage from the get go with deep warmth, charisma, humor, blinding rage, and utter accessibility. LBJ’s towering forcefulness emerged under duress, always finding a way to flatten a foe who was putting the screws to him. Cranston convinces us that he could leave an adversary–by all accounts– “stunned and helpless. ” Director Bill Rauch conspires with the play’s laser focus and Cranston’s considerable dramatic skill (and vocal stamina)  to give us a central character of Shakespearean stature and humanity, his idealism and pragmatism continually at war within him.

A simple set is the back drop for a large, fine, multitasking supporting cast: Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Robert Byrd, Reed Birney as hapless Hubert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond, Betsy Aidem as the devoted Lady Bird, Katharine Graham, and Representative Katharine St. George, and so on.

Three hours fly by as you go all the way with LBJ in his first year as President. Prepare to be enthralled and amazed by a sweep of history lived onstage from the inside out. ALL THE WAY” is  ALMOST sold out at the A.R.T. in Cambridge through October 12, but a few more tickets have just become available! So grab them –and if that doesn’t work, hang around outside the theater before a performance in the hope that someone won’t show up.