By ANTHONY CHASE
The Theatre of Youth production of “Jungle Book” is sheer joy. Adapted by playwright Greg Banks from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 stories about a boy named Mowgli who is raised by wolves, this stage version for children age six and up is delightful. The massive jungle gym design by Ken Shaw is inspired. Direction by Chris Kelly is fun and inventive. The cast is irresistibly wonderful.
As the play begins, actors come out into the audience to interact with children, establishing themselves as friendly and human, before taking us all on an adventure into the darkness of the Indian jungle. Here, through masks, costume pieces, and flights of imagination, an ensemble of six will embody every manner of tiger, panther, snake, bear, vulture, and monkey.
The play uses two stories from the original book and the playwright has contrived his own dramatic ending for Shere Khan, the tiger antagonist (who is trampled in a stampede in the book, a device later borrowed for The Lion King by Disney).
Matthew J. Divita provides the narrative voice and plays a number of characters, with wonderful warmth and wit. From the moment the play begins with the sounds of jungle birds, overtaken by drumming, the storytelling never lags.
Daniel Torres plays Mowgli. He is adorable in the role, beginning with the baby Mowgli’s journey through the vines and branches, where he will give deadly Shere Khan the slip, by entering the narrow opening of a wolves’ den. While the performance seems effortless and like actual child's play, I have noted that many adult actors who play babies and young children, somehow manage to make them appear … let me say, less than clever. Torres endows Mowgli with mischievous intelligence from first to last.
Mowgli’s uncommon cleverness will get him into heaps of trouble before our afternoon is over. How frustrating that this boy often ignores the warnings of his parental figures – first his wolf parents, played by Divita and Lissette DeJesus; and then Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Panther, played by Robert Cooke and Brendan Didio. I imagine that many parents in the audience are hoping that when their six-year olds turn 16, they will remember the message of “Jungle Book,” that others may want things from you, but your family wants things for you, and you should listen to their advice. And of course, that ever repeating message from Victorian children's literature: everyone must grow up.
The entire company gets great mileage out of portraying these familiar animal characters.
Cooke is lovably oafish as overly emotional Baloo. Brendan Didio is endearing as cool-headed but big-hearted Bagheera.
Rick Lattimer makes lethal Shere Khan both terrifying and seductive. He is the perfect antagonist, as he patiently waits for his moment to claim Mowgli as his prize. This recurring line of the plot generates great excitement among children, who were quite vocal in announcing Shere Khan’s every entrance.
Lissette DeJesus, whose stage presence lights up a stage like a Fresnel lamp, is terrific as strong-willed Mother Wolf, but it is her extraordinary performance as Kaa the python that kids will act out when they get home. Her Kaa is sensual and very Puerto Rican, as she uses her wiles (and expressive consonant sounds) to rescue Mowgli from the marauding monkeys.
And oh, those monkeys! These scatterbrained sociopaths, played by the entire company, evoke trills of delighted laughter among younger audience members. Their simian vaudeville is expertly calibrated by director Kelly, and kids recognize childish bad behavior when they see it.
Since the Brothers Grimm, no great children’s story has been complete without a moment of horror. Jungle Book provides this in thrilling fashion, and for the record, not one child cried at the matinee I attended. In fact, everyone seemed riveted! I know I was!