Jungle Book, the newest production by Young People’s Theatre, is a fascinating, fun and fast-moving experience that is sure to delight audiences of all ages. Craig Francis and Rick Miller have created a modern, multimedia adaptation of the stories by Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book, 1894) that Disney made famous. The show takes us on a journey through Mowgli’s life story: from being raised by animals in the forests of India, to (by the end of the play), being a professional architect in New York City. The story is energetically told by Mowgli (Levin Valayil) as he literally grows up in front of the audience’s eyes.
Themes of self-acceptance, caring for the environment, family love, and how multi-faceted someone’s life story can be, are touched on throughout Jungle Book. These themes are more than a little touching – and important, too! The way these strong thematic messages are communicated, however, sometimes feels a little too much like Dora the Explorer or Blue’s Clues, especially during the play’s ending, where Mowgli literally spells out the moral of the play to the audience. After 70 minutes of world-building filled with dramatic, dark moments and character development (the play covers a LOT of ground), the audience is simply told the main takeaway of the play. For me, this explicit spelling-out of the moral undercut the play’s nuance and intrigue, and removed the audience’s ability to draw their own takeaways from the play. Maybe this criticism is just me being a teenager (the play is for ages 5 and up), but the ending just felt too on-the-nose – especially since the rest of the play is so multi-faceted!
Jungle Book has a really cool set designed by Astrid Janson and Melanie McNeill, too. It features a large screen, and throughout the show, several settings and videos are projected onto it. Some of these videos and settings bring New York City to life, and others show us the deepest of jungles and a town near the jungle. While I generally thought this multimedia approach to an adaptation of a classic set of stories was fun and modern, whenever shadow-puppet animals were displayed on the screen, I found it distracting, as it took me out of the live-theatre experience. Watching live actors talk to a screen was jarring. The use of multimedia was smart, dynamic and original, but I feel that keeping all the animals as live actors we could physically see, would have resulted in a more cohesive viewing experience.
This review for Jungle Book would be incomplete without mentioning the excellent work of the cast. Levin Valayil is compelling as Mowgli, with boundless energy and a wide-eyed, adventurous attitude. Matt Lacas delights in the opposing roles of Baloo and Buldeo. Tahirih Vejdani shows us the wide range of her acting skills as the feisty and eager Maya and the ruthless tiger Shere Khan. And Mina James impresssssssses as both the snake Messua and Mowgli’s protector/wolf mother Bagheera.
I also noticed that, unlike Kipling’s original book or the famous Disney films, this adaptation doesn’t claim to be “The” Jungle Book. Instead, it is just Jungle Book, showing it is a different and new adaptation, not the “definitive” one. And it’s a really good adaptation, to boot! It isn’t perfect, but I do recommend seeing it. It’s modern, spirited and sweet, and offers important messages which prompt us to think about the world around us and who we want to be as people. Jungle Book is definitely worth the trip to the jungle!
News You Can Use
What: Jungle Book | Written & Directed by Craig Francis & Rick Miller | Adapted from the works of Rudyard Kipling by Kidoons and WYRD Productions in association with The 20K Collective | Production Manager/Technical Director: James Kendal; Stage Manager: Andrew Dollar | Executive Producer: Jeff Lord | Set/Costume/Props Co-Designers: Astrid Janson, Melanie McNeill | Multimedia Designer: Irina Litvinenko | Lighting Designer: Rebecca Picherack | Sound Designer/Composer: Debashis Sinha | Original Song Composer: Suba Sankaran | Co-Directors: Craig Francis, Rick Miller
Cast: Mina James, Matt Lacas, Levin Valayil and Tahirih Vejdani
Who: Audiences 5 years of age and older
When: On stage until March 21, 2010; runs approximately 70 minutes, not including post-show Q&A
Where: Young People’s Theatre – Mainstage, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON
Explore and Learn: Study Guide
Info and Tickets: youngpeoplestheatre.org
© Sayak S-G, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020