Here’s a tip for you: if you’re going to see a piece of children’s theater, bring a child with you.
It seems obvious, but these things have a way of getting away from you. My 9 year old stepson was supposed to accompany me to Adventure Theater’s production of The Jungle Book, but ran late from an all-too-important play date with a friend. So I forged ahead through the thick underbrush on my own.
The show is based, of course, on Rudyard Kipling’s more than 100 year old tale. For the uninitiated, the story tells the tale of Mowgli, a young boy lost in the jungle. Once found, the boy is adopted and raised by wolves (among other animal friends). Early attempts by Shere Khan, a ruthless tiger, to eat the boy are thwarted by the wolf pack, who intone that the first rule of the jungle is to never kill man. Khan vows revenge, making repeated attempts to ensnare Mowgli as the boy grows older and wiser in the ways of the jungle. The result is a power struggle between the lawless Khan and the elders of the pack.
Like the jungle itself, Adventure Theater’s production is both fraught with troublesome elements and dotted with memorable beauties.
First, the good. Adventure Theater rarely fails to deliver a visually stunning event, and The Jungle Book is no exception. The opening scene quite literally unfolds before our eyes, bringing the jungle to life in a very tangible way (and much to the delight of the young audience). Sound designer Christopher Baine also deserves high praise for effects that buffer the actors’ impressive work to – excuse the phrase – ape the behaviors of tigers, snakes, bears and more.
There’s some great on-stage work as well. Shanta Parasuraman is bright eyed and engaging as Tabaqui, Shere Khan’s right-hand jackal / hyena. Parasuraman is just what the doctor ordered as she reaches into the audience and gently snaps any lingering squirmers back to attention. She knows exactly what it takes to keep little kids keyed in, and it helps a great deal.
Rafael Sebastian also sells the role of Mowgli well with some spirited movement as he swings across the jungle. Nadia Mohebban serves up some compelling choreography as the hypnotic Kaa, and James Johnson wins laughs from the little ones as loveable Baloo.
Adventure Theater’s production also eschews many of the big musical numbers that have become commonplace in children’s theater. These children-only songs are sometimes a hit, but too often fall completely flat. The fact that Adventure Theater largely shied away from this is a big win for parents who have suffered through more than their fair share in the past.
So it isn’t for lack of trying that Adventure Theater’s adaptation doesn’t quite get there.
The production glazes over some of the salient details of the plot, asking the audience to simply make assumptions about who is who and why they’re doing what they do. For the parents and grandparents in the audience who grew up with the book as well as the film, this is no problem. We’re coded with the “bare necessities” of the work, but sandwiched between two children I got the sense that more than a few of the younger viewers were confused about what exactly was going on.
Of course, that wouldn’t matter one whit if the production were simply a lighthearted romp through the jungle with our favorite animal friends. But it isn’t. The Jungle Book leans heavily into some serious topics –a violent (not on stage, of course) play for power and a little boy who hasn’t found his place in the world. It isn’t scary or sad unless you really let yourself get carried away, but it’s a little heavy for a Sunday afternoon with the kids.
THE JUNGLE BOOK
Closes May 25, 2014
7300 MacArthur Blvd
Glen Echo, MD
55 minutes, no intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
That’s not to say I wanted her to know. But perhaps there’s a way to end this that will better speak to the intended audience. Mowgli is scolded when he goes missing, repeatedly scared by the play’s villain and warned again and again to follow the rules of the jungle. The work instead should have reached for mirth and levity. After all, it’s a weekend out with the kids. Bring on the funny!
Of course, that didn’t stop a young boy, complete with Panama Jack jungle hat, from giving the play a standing ovation when the lights came up. And the little ones were lined up out the door to meet the characters when all was said and done.
Adventure Theater does great work and will continue to get my business as long as I have a young kid to bring with me. This simply wasn’t their best.
Adventure Theatre recommends this for ages 4 and up.
The Jungle Book based on the story by Rudyard Kipling, adapted by Tracey Power . Directed by Shirley Serotsky . Featuring Rafael Sebastian, James J. Johnson, Andrew Ferlo, Shavran Amin, Nadia Mahdi, Noopur Singha, Shanta Parasuraman and Nadia Mohebban . Assistant Director: Medha Marsten . Choreographer . Chitra Kalyandurg . Movement: Mark Jaster . Set design: Robbie Hayes . Costume design: Pei Lee . Props design: Dre Moore . Lighting design: Brian Allard . Sound design: Chris Baine . Stage Manager: Donna Stout assisted by Julia Singer . Produced by Adventure Theatre/MTC . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.