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The Jungle Book – Theatre Review, Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

 

For its live theatrical version of The Jungle Book, Valley Youth Theatre has by-passed the expected Hollywood route and gone back to the story’s origins; from the tales as told by Rudyard Kipling, the Indian born though British raised author, then adapted by children’s playwright, Monica Flory.

There are several Kipling stories of the boy Mowgli, abandoned in the jungle, found, and raised by wolves.  This version as performed by VYT concentrates on two early adventures, the story of Mowgli’s Brothers, where the boy Mowgli (a perfect jungle boy, Vincent Jacovo) becomes part of the pack and is aided in his fight against the ferocious tiger, Shere Khan by Baloo the Bear (a warm, likable performance from Tim Oakes) and Bagheera the Panther (played with a nice touch of authority and even affection by Destiny Walsh), and where Mowgli is abducted by the monkeys.

 

At the opening we are introduced to the Laws of the Jungle.  Three black-feathered birds, known in India as Pariah Kites, act as a kind of Greek Chorus, always observing, occasionally commenting on the action.  You can kill anything you’re strong enough to kill,” they chant in unison across the auditorium.  A brave heart is your best weapon,” is another.  The three characters, played by Sophia Drapeau, Alexandra Kirby and Hayley Trueman, are fun to observe, and even though their feet never leave the ground, they successfully recreate a sense of gliding, their arms forever moving in a slo-mo, balletic style as they float above the action, circling in an eagle-like manner, often letting us know where we are in the story.

What’s works so well in this version of The Jungle Book is despite its original literary roots, the script is full of good, modern-day humor throughout.  Much of the comedy is designed to be obvious to a child, but occasionally there is something recognizable for the adults.  Laws?” asks one of the monkeys in a nod to the famous ‘stinking badges’ quote from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “We don’t need no stinkin’ laws.”

What might surprise some who have only ever known The Jungle Book through Disney, is how different Kipling’s characters really are from their animated counterparts.  In this version, Kaa, the snake, is a she and doesn’t quite possess the hypnotic abilities the film gave the character.  Here, as played by Katy Sprowls, Kaa is something of a saucy, almost brazen ol’ snake whose intention is not to eat Mowgli but to help him.  Did you check out my new skin?” she asks, showing off her slithery form.  Pretty classy for an old broad.”

 

The three mischievous monkeys, known as Funky, Cheeky and Trout (Kaila Inman, Zane Niezgodzki and Ethan Shanker) nicely recreate a sense of what it might be like to be surrounded by unpredictable, excitable-like creatures, constantly chattering, picking the fleas from their fur, and jumping around with a panicky energy that never quits.  They’re like walking, nervous ticks who may seem playful on the surface but there’s always that underlying sense of danger about them, and, like the three Kites, they’re just as much fun to watch.

But the real sense of danger belongs to William Harris as Shere Khan the Tiger whose mere presence creates that uncomfortable feeling of menace for everyone, not just Mowgli, the man cub.  What does Shere Khan need?” asks Father Wolf (Erick Deyden) of the tiger as he looks around for the hidden boy.  My dinner,” responds Khan.

Other good support comes from the comforting presence of Sophia Deyden as Mother Wolf , who doubles as Messua, a woman from the man-village,  Constantino DeAngelis as Mowgli’s younger wolf cub brother, the wolves themselves played by Cole Flowers and Eli West, Akela the leader of the wolf pack, played with a nice sense of weight by Anand Khalsa, and finally the guy who practically steals the show by sheer, comic audacity, Tabaqui, the scheming and self-survivalist jackal and Shere Khan’s toady.  Josh Pike may well have a future as a stand-up comedian.  When Tabaqui slyly plants the idea of kidnapping Mowgli in the minds of the three, troublesome monkeys, he tells them, “Anytime you have the opportunity of taking him for a swing, you should.”

 

Director Lauren Antioco incorporates nice flourishes into the production, adding animal sound effects that often punctuate the end of a sentence.  Dori Brown’s painted scenic design creates a comic-book feel to the jungle, while Karol Cooper’s costume design brings the jungle characters alive.  It is one thing to see the costumes at arms-length on stage, but take the time for a closer look after the show when the cast assemble in the lobby as you make your exit; here you’ll be able to see more closely the remarkable attention to detail, not only in the apparel but also with the masks. 

The play ends quickly – the wrap-up comes at just the moment when you think there might be more to come – but the Kites put things back into perspective by telling us that what happens to Mowgli in the future is “… a story for another time.”  Ironically, the Disney version is this week re-released for the home market, but if you want to see where Mowgli really began, stand in line for this warm-hearted, amusing and truly affectionate tale of The Jungle Book.  And if it inspires some to go back and read the original Kipling tales, more power to it.

 For times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the VYT website.

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