Friday, October 30, 2015

"The Jungle Book" at Children's Theatre Company

Confession: I've never read The Jungle Book (the collection of stories written by Rudyard Kipling in 1894) or seen the 1967 Disney movie (that I can remember). So I was on the fence about seeing Children's Theatre Company's new adaptation, until I saw the cast list (more on them later). They're about a month into their two and a half month run, and I'm so glad I decided to see the show. This coming of age story that just happens to take place in a jungle is a wonderful tale of friendship, family, community, interdependence with nature, and finally having the courage to strike out on your own. With a sparse adaptation featuring just five actors playing all of the characters (most of them animals), whimsical musical accompaniment and sound effects, and a set that's like the best playground imaginable, The Jungle Book is sheer delight from start to finish.

Even if you, like me, have never read the book or seen the movie, you probably know the story. A young human child is raised by wolves in the jungle, who call him Mowgli. As he gets older, the bear Baloo and the panther Bagheera take him under their wings, er... paws. Mowgli learns to commune with the animals of the jungle, but soon finds out that not all of them are his friends. He has the usual growing pains of any human child, but eventually comes to appreciate his animal family and all they've done for him (there's hope, parents!). Because of their love and guidance, he's able to go off on his own into the human world and find his place in the world.

The delights of this adaptation by Greg Banks, who also directs are many, and include:
  • Eric Sharp joyously inhabits the character of Mowgli from the playful non-verbal child, to the rebellious kid wanting to play with his friends, to the young man who is ready to set out on his own, but grateful to his animal family.
  • The other four actors play three to four animal characters each, and completely physically transform into each one. Highlights include H. Adam Harris' lovable Baloo that any child would want as a friend, Casey Hoekstra's deliciously menacing tiger, Autumn Ness' stern but maternal prowling panther, Nastacia Nicole's smooth and seductive snake, and all of them as the playful and mischievous monkeys.
  • Unlike the Disney movie, this is not a musical, but there is music and sound. Victor Zupanc plays multiple instruments including percussion, accordion, and various whistles and noisemakers, which provides a lovely soundtrack to the story.
  • Joseph Stanley's set is a playground any kid (or adult) would love to play on, with multiple levels, stairs, ladders, swings, and platforms high off the ground. It provides endless possibilities for exits, entrances, and interactions, and the cast is all over it.
  • The costumes (by Alison Siple) are subtly representative of the animals the actors are portraying. There are no full fuzzy stuffed animal type of costumes. Rather the actors are dressed in fairly normal people clothes with accessories that hint at the animal - a gray furry hood for the wolves, a brown fuzzy coat for the bear, a colorful mane and bungee cord tail for the monkeys, and beautiful long silk scarf for the snake. Simple but creative and effective, and most importantly, easy to change as these actors get their workout transforming from one animal to the next.
  • The message of "we're of the same blood" is so beautiful and moving, and perhaps even more important to remember today than it was 100 years ago. We're all part of the jungle that is earth, and The Jungle Book reminds us of that.
This Jungle Book is so fun and playful, with a beautiful message about a family that's not related by blood (or even of the same species) and a connection with nature. Whether you're a child or an adult, a fan of the story or unfamiliar with it, it's impossible not to love it. (Continuing through December 20 in CTC's ground level Cargill Stage).

Mowgli and the monkeys (H. Adam Harris, Casey Hoekstra,
Eric Sharp, Autumn Ness, Nastacia Nicole, photo by Dan Norman)

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.