BWW Review: THE JUNGLE BOOK at Imagination Stage
Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book has seen no shortage of adaptations. In addition to its original print form, it's the source for two Disney movies, and a stage adaptation at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago a few years back. Would-be adaptors face as slight problem in that while there is lots of fun within Kipling's stories about a human child named Mowgli being raised by wolves, the story also has a dark side to it that might not work well for the youngest of theatregoers. Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Maryland is currently presenting a new adaptation by Greg Banks of Kipling's work, which will leave your little ones engaged from beginning to end without clawing you to go into the lobby. Older kids and adults are also likely to enjoy themselves, making it a theatergoing experience for the whole family.
As previously mentioned, Mowgli (Justin Weaks) is bought up in the jungles of India by a family of wolves. His parents (Nora Achrati and Ryan Andrew Mitchell) are very protective of him. They are not the only living beings in the jungle though. Shere Kahn (Ricardo Frederick Evans), a manipulative tiger, has been stalking Mowgli and his family (keep the word "manipulative" in mind for later). As Mowgli grows up and gets more curious about the jungle, his mother enlists a slightly lazy bear named Baloo, (played by Mitchell), and a jaguar named Bagheera (Latia Stokes) to keep an eye on her son. This task proves harder than anticipated. Mowgli gets away from his friends and has some "interesting" adventures.
The first adventure is with a bunch of funky monkeys just hanging around. Yep that's their mantra and they're sticking to it. The monkeys don't take life too seriously, and Bagheera tries to warn Mowgli of this particular attribute. Nonetheless, the monkeys have some fun and take Mowgli to an island and throw him into a snake pit. Ultimately, his friends rescue him and a 30 foot long snake named Kaa (played by Achrati) who has, shall we say, a hypnotizing presence for wolves and everyone else.
How will this all turn out? Will Mowgli get home to his family? Will Shere Kahn get what he deserves for turning the wolf pack against Mowgli? Buy a ticket and see for yourself.
Imagination Stage's Artistic Director Janet Stanford's staging is up to its usual high standards. The audience is immersed in the action, especially with the performers occasionally using the aisles and getting the audience to join in for a dance or two choreographed by Jaya Prasad.
The cast is uniformly top notch. Justin Weaks, as Mowgli, totally transforms from a naïve man cub to a responsible man who respects animals and the environment, and appreciates the importance of protecting them both.
Ricardo Frederick Evans, as Shere Kahn, is scary, but not enough to make little Johnny shriek. He is menacing, but not bombastic or over-the-top. In other words, he gives a perfectly balanced performance.
Ryan Andrew Mitchell is an endearing Baloo. His willingness to help is only outweighed by how tired he always is. In the end though, I'd want him as my friend and so would you.
Latia Stokes, as Bagheera, makes a wonderful impression as the firm, but motherly jaguar. She always has Mowgli's best interest at heart.
Last but definitely not least, Nora Achrati (as Kaa and others) steals the show with her pixie exuberance. Coming off of Intelligence at Arena Stage, this show proves that Achrati is one of the area's most versatile performers.
Daniel Ettinger's multi-level set gives the performing company plenty of room to swing and jump while Sarah Tundermann's lighting is full of leaf break-ups and moody jungle atmosphere.
I really enjoyed the way costume designer Kendra Rai handles the multiple costumes that each performer wears throughout the performance. There are only five actors, but Rai has them in multiple pieces, including head gear, which ensures each character is physically totally different and distinct.
Patrick Calhoun's ominous sound design and Eric Shimelonis' superb musical compositions (made up of drums and fiddle) are the final ingredients needed to transport us into Kipling's world.
The Jungle Book at Imagination Stage is a wonderful way to introduce your family to Rudyard Kipling's story without worrying about how scared the littlest child might get. When you reach that balance of preserving the story and making it palatable for your young audience, then something is right with your company.
Janet Stanford and company have a true winner with The Jungle Book so swing on by and enjoy.
Running Time: 75 minutes for school performances. 90 minutes with one intermission for public performances.
The Jungle Book plays through May 28, 2017 at Imagination Stage which is located at 4908 Auburn Ave, Bethesda, Maryland. For tickets, click here.