A little boy found abandoned in the jungle is raised by wolves, then placed under the protection and guidance of the old sloth bear Baloo and the black panther Bagheera, only to be stalked by the blood-thirsty tiger Shere Khan, held hostage by a band of wild monkeys, and rescued with the help of a volt of vultures and Kaa the python! Based on British author Rudyard Kipling’s series of exotic children’s stories (1894) inspired by his childhood in India, THE JUNGLE BOOK—the subject of an animated Disney film of 1967 and a new Disney adventure movie slated for release in April 2016—is now an engaging family play, celebrating its world premiere at Arden Children’s Theatre.
Written by Greg Banks, directed by Matthew Decker, and performed by a charismatic ensemble of five, the adapted moralizing tale follows the story of the “man-cub” Mowgli (Thaddeus Fitzpatrick), as an array of anthropomorphic animals (Taysha Canales, Charlie DelMarcelle, Sean Lally, and Nikki E. Walker) teach him “The Law of the Jungle” and the lessons of life. Audiences of all ages will recognize that these rules of conduct amidst the diversity and dangers of the world apply not just to wildlife, but also to humans, and that, despite our differences in background, form, and language, we are all “of one blood” and owe each other mutual respect and kindness.
The Arden’s inventive production requires that young viewers use their imaginations and focus on the action that takes place all around them. With seating on three sides of a central storytelling circle, the theatrical space is transformed into a minimalist jungle (scenic design by Timothy R. Mackabee), in which vines, trees, cliffs, and a deep well are evoked by green ropes, metal poles, ladders, and platforms that are climbed by the nimble cast (choreography by Niki Cousineau), before a painted backdrop of mountains and silhouetted foliage and a luminous full moon (lighting design by Maria Shaplin). Realistic sounds of the tropics encompass the audience (sound and original composition by Daniel Perelstein), while the ebullient ensemble provides the chattering of the monkeys, the raspy caws of the vultures, the roar of the tiger, and the hissing of the snake they portray.
Along with their distinctive ears, tails, and patches of fur, these walking, talking jungle fauna wear baggy harem pants, turbans, and a traditional-style jacket that cleverly place them in India (costumes by Lauren Perigard). The actors playing multiple roles switch from one species to another with lightning-quick costume changes and clear transformations in their voices, movements, and demeanors, easily enabling young audiences to identify each of the different characters. Under Decker’s vivid direction, DelMarcelle is especially gentle and huggable as Baloo (his characterization of the sloth bear is uncanny, right down to his fingertips); Lally is menacing as the relentless Shere Khan; Walker brings strength to Bagheera; and Canales is seductive as Kaa, but silly as the most playful and forgetful of the monkeys. And Fitzpatrick’s Mowgli is readily comprehensible and fully relatable to kids, who, like the young protagonist, face their own challenges, undergo growing pains, learn to listen to their elders, and discover their own true identity. This is one irresistible version of Rudyard’s classic that is sure to charm and to enlighten! [40 N. 2nd Street, Arcadia Stage] April 15-June 21, 2015; ardentheatre.org.