BWW Review: JUNGLE BOOK Heeds the Call of the Wild in an Imaginative, Beautiful Production
It's time to escape Toronto's urban jungle for a real one, and this journey is one for the entire family to take together.
Rudyard Kipling's classic works are adapted and directed by Craig Francis and Rick Miller in this modern, multimedia take on a beloved story of the connection between humanity and nature. Produced by Kidoons, WYRD Productions and The 20K Collective and presented by Young People's Theatre, JUNGLE BOOK takes the story of Mowgli and his animal friends and refreshes it for kids today; in this version, Mowgli (Levin Valayil) is a 25-year old architect living in the urban jungle of New York City and struggling to reconcile the harsh nature of urban architecture with his roots in nature. His crisis halts when his sister sends him the 'Jungle Book' that he used to document his childhood adventures with the wolves who raised him, Baloo the bear (Matt Lacas), Bagheera the panther (Mina James), and more.
From here, JUNGLE BOOK rewinds to the moment when Mowgli, depicted as an infant with a surprisingly emotive puppet (controlled by Valayil), first totters into the den of a pack of wolves. He's quickly taken in by the pack's leaders Akela (Lacas) and Raksha (James), and from there the audience watches him grow and learn through adventures both fun and frightening. Mowgli's main adversary throughout the story is Shere Khan (Tahirih Vejdani), the vicious tiger who claims it is in his right to kill Mowgli, and who is a looming spectre - quite literally, as he's a shadow puppet - throughout the boy's life.
For a story with such dark content, this production does a phenomenal job of adjusting its scarier parts for its intended younger audience. Valayil is a strong lead, playing Mowgli with a bratty, rebellious attitude that subtly grows into maturity and self-awareness. The remainder of the cast doubles down to bring at least three characters to life each. Lacas shines as the fun-loving teacher Baloo, and Vejdani is wonderfully endearing as Maya; however, James's characters are a huge part of the story's heart, and she carries each powerfully. As Mowgli's mother, she is equal parts heroic and heartbreaking, and as the wise panther Bagheera she balances out the sillier Baloo with stoic grace.
What really sells this production are the multimedia (multimedia design by Irina Litvinenko), costumes, and puppet (both, plus sets and props, designed by Astrid Janson and Melanie McNeill) components. With simple adjustments and additions to the ensembles' simple black jumpsuits, the actors shift into glowing-eyed wolves, sloth bears, monkeys, and anything else that might call the jungle home. The decision to restrict certain characters to puppets was wise, and worked well with the limitations of the stage; Shere Khan's silhouette is strikingly terrifying whenever he crosses the large screen, and the size and power of creatures like the elephants or the python Kaa (Vejdani) are easy to understand when they've been enlarged through shadows and screens.
In some cases, too many digital elements can distract or detract from a staged production, but in JUNGLE BOOK the additions only strengthen a story that seeks to discuss - and succeeds in doing so - difficult topics like hierarchies, finding a place to belong, environmentalism and humanity's ongoing destruction of nature. These are all things that affect children today, whether they're fully conscious of them or not, and it's great to know that they can begin to explore these topics in a way that's age-appropriate, stunningly designed, and immensely fun.
Young People's Theatre presents Kidoons, WYRD Productions and The 20K Collective's JUNGLE BOOK, running through March 21 at Young People's Theatre, 165 Front Street E., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.youngpeoplestheatre.org/shows-tickets/jungle-book/
Photo credit: Rick Miller