Our story starts deep in the middle of a jungle on one of those dark nights…but listen carefully! And you just might hear the wonderful cry of Imagination Stage’s The Jungle Book as it roars to life for young audiences and audiences’ young at heart! A perfect show for the whole family, The Jungle Book is Directed by Janet Stanford and adapted to the stage by Greg Banks. Based on the story by Rudyard Kipling, the tale follows the adventures of young Mowgli and his life among the wild animals of the jungle.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger works in tandem with Lighting Designer Sarah Tundermann and Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun to create a vivaciously imaginative jungle on the stage. The set has playground elements but isn’t overly elaborate. This allows the excited minds of the young audience members to activate their own imaginations and see the deep mighty jungle come to life before their eyes with just hints of green or blue light. Assisting in the imaginative ventures of the audience, Costume Designer Kendra Rai works miracles with the whimsical and yet realistic pieces used to turn an ensemble of four (as the actor playing Mowgli is only ever seen as Mowgli) into dozens of different creatures of the jungle. Rai works puppetry into her costumes, creating fantastical vultures, a hypnotic snake, ridiculous monkeys, and much more. Each character costume has a unique style to it, differentiating readily from animal to animal through the jungle of characters included in the story.
Original Composer Eric Shimelonis sets the appropriate feeling for the show by creating music for the piece that echoes exotic and rhythmic vibrations. While there is definitely a yen for more of this music, what Shimelonis creates fits well with the Direction that Janet Stanford gives to the piece. Allowing the performers to engage with the sillier bits of the story as well as the heavier moments and those designed to teach morals and lessons, Sanford keeps young audiences entertained and engaged throughout the duration of the production. Audience members are even invited to stand up and dance along as a part of the show’s finale; this sampling of theatrical immersion is perfect for anyone who might be experiencing their first theatre show!
Justin Weaks, playing Mowgli, has perhaps the most challenging role of the ensemble as he must portray both man and animal— or rather how man is perceived when raised by animals. Rolling about on the floor and exerting his energy into more animalistic behaviors, Weaks does an exceptional job of representing the growth and adjustment of the young “man cub” character through various phases of the show. His playful side is as engaging as his frightened side, and everything he does is bursting with enthusiasm, whether its playing around or responding to a sticky situation.
Like all the performers in the remainder of the ensemble, Nora Achrati takes on multiple roles throughout the performance, but her most memorable is Kaa the snake by far. Though Kaa only makes her appearance in the second act, Achrati ensures that the slithering serpent is indeed unforgettable with her hypnotic vocal affectation and equally mesmerizing physicality. The costume befitted her for this character is striking and Achrati threads it flawlessly into her slippery motions as the snake. Putting her versatility on display, much like the rest of the cast, Achrati takes up the roles of Mother Wolf and one of the Monkeys, each uniquely different in voice and physicality from Kaa and from one another.
Latia Stokes plays the noble Bagheera as her principal character. Doubling up as a wolf, monkey, vulture, and villager, Stokes finds subtle ways to make each character different from the other. Striding with grace and purpose when wearing the headdress of the powerful panther of the jungle, Bagheera creates a much revered character in this majestic creature. Playing opposite Stokes and serving as the other half of the Mowgli’s educational duo, Ryan Andrew Mitchell takes up the big furry personality of Baloo the bear. Though reverent when the situation calls for it, Mitchell’s portrayal as Baloo serves as a great dose of comic relief throughout the production.
Fearsome villain, loathsome antagonist, and wretched creature— these are the words that must be saved for Shere Khan (Ricardo Frederick Evans.) With a ferocious voice and an accurately unsettling limp, Evans stalks through the jungle as if he owned every tree, branch, and vine therein. Sillier as a monkey and lovely as a vulture, the only thing anyone is going to take away from this is that he is the ruthless, boo-worthy bad guy, which means as an actor portraying a villain in a show designed to engage young audiences, he’s done exactly his job!
The ultimate children’s takeaway (opinion formulated verbatim by nine-year-old Michae Johnson, attending the performance with us) “Don’t trust the monkeys.” They too are tricksters and although not as nefarious as Shere Khan, can cause quite a spot of trouble for a man cub in the jungle. A delight for audiences of all ages, but in particular those still of the imaginatively engaging age range, The Jungle Book is a perfect first-time theatrical experience and really keeps the audience involved in the story as it progresses from start to finish.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with one intermission
The Jungle Book plays through May 28, 2017 in The Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre at Imagination Stage— 4908 Auburn Avenue in Bethesda, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 280-1660 or purchase them online.