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Meet the Mowglis: Roni Akurati, Akash Chopra, Goodman's 'Jungle Book' Stars

Meet the Mowglis
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DNAinfo/Jackie Kostek

THE LOOP — Like many 10 and 11-year-olds, Akash Chopra and Roni Akurati like to spend their downtime shooting hoops, talking about football and trying to beat each other's high score on "Head Soccer."

But unlike most tweens, they also spend their downtime backstage at The Goodman Theatre between scenes of its latest musical, Mary Zimmerman's "The Jungle Book."

Akash, from New York City via India, then Spain, and Roni, a Lake Zurich native whose parents also emigrated from India, split the lead role of Mowgli in the show bound for Boston when it wraps its Chicago premiere run Aug. 16.

Adapted from Rudyard Kipling's book and the 1967 Disney film, the "highly recommended" musical was written in director Zimmerman's signature on-the-go style: Scripting doesn't begin until the parts are cast and rehearsals are underway.

 Meet the two preteens behind the leading role in the Goodman Theatre's new "Jungle Book."
Meet the Mowglis: Roni and Akash
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As a result, the boys said they see elements of their personalities intertwined with their onstage persona.

"Mowgli's such an exciting character. ... It's really fun to play a character that's brave, and who just sings along to everything," Akash said. "I like to think I could say of myself [that] I'm as brave.

"But he's also just so excited about doing everything — which, what kid isn't?" said Akash.

Aside from their tiny costumes hanging in one corner (two loincloths, one tunic), the boys' dressing room looks a lot like a clubhouse. Mounted on one wall is a basketball hoop, where the Mowglis and other castmates take "lucky shots" before each show and during intermission.

Roni keeps a running score of points and "trick shots" on the door.

Another wall is decorated with cards and construction paper cutouts signed by the cast. Baloo's understudy recently taught Akash origami, so paper cranes and frogs are scattered around their wig kits and notes from recent performances.

Both said "The Bear Necessities" is their favorite part of the two-hour, 15-minute production.

"During tech week, me and Kevin [Carolan, who plays Baloo] got to interact a lot with each other, so I think the chemistry we have with each other brings 'Bear Necessities' to life," Akash said.

"It's awesome — dancing, and singing, and just having fun with Baloo," Roni said. "And the scene with the vultures. It's supposed to be funny for the audience [and] scary for Mowgli, but for us, trying not to laugh is the hardest thing to do."

Akash, the main Mowgli, comes to the Goodman with one onstage experience under his belt: a kids' production of "Les Miserables" in New York.

Roni, the alternate, just moved back to Lake Zurich after a stint in L.A. shooting a pilot and episodes for Nickelodeon's upcoming "Deadtime Stories."

Roni said he's certain he wants to be an actor when he grows up, but hasn't settled on a medium: "Theater's really fun, and then so is on-camera stuff," he said.

His family has been working to make that dream come true, trying to navigate the unfamiliar waters of show business, moving their two sons out West and back again to keep up with Roni's projects.

"We are the first generation in the U.S., so we don't know much about the industry," said his mother, Rajani Akurati. "We're learning as we go."

Roni decided he wanted to dance and act when he was 5, and three years ago he signed with his first agent. He and Akash will both be tutored on the road when the show's tour begins later this month.

"Since he's showing some interest, we're trying to encourage it," Akurati said, adding that they strive to keep the pressure off their 11-year-old.

"Whenever there's an audition or anything, he is the first one to wake up and get ready. When he has an audition, he learns the lines by heart. We don't have to push him."

His fellow Mowgli is still on the fence about his future.

"Sports is a hobby that I do now, and I don't know if I want to be a sports player when I grow up or an actor," he said.

So Akash, only 10, is keeping his options open.

"When it's time to decide, I'll just decide," he said.