Rudyard Kipling’s children’s classic The Jungle Book has certainly proved fertile ground for adaptation over the years, whether it be for Disney movie megahits or onstage, as is the case with the world premiere version of the story of the boy Mowgli now playing at Asolo Rep.
Brought to life by the same team (writers-directors Craig Francis and Rick Miller) who conceived last year’s family-friendly season closer, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, this Jungle Book employs some of the same techniques as that earlier production. A small cast of four actors ranges across the stage in a number of roles, so swiftly and smoothly that you sometimes can’t remember who’s playing what. A few original songs (by Suba Sankaran) enhance the action. And all of the production design elements—props, costumes and set by Astrid Janson and Melanie McNeill, lighting by Rebecca Picherack, and multimedia design by Irina Litvinenko—cohere to move the story along with color and atmosphere, without any pauses for set changes in the 70-minute, intermission-less show.
Like Leagues, with its embittered Captain Nemo, Jungle Book also offers a character who feels torn between the worlds of humanity and nature with Mowgli (Levin Valayil), who first addresses the audience directly as the grown man and architect he’s become, in 21st-century New York. He doesn’t like the buildings he finds himself designing, and soon he’s taking us back with him to the jungles of India, where he grew up as a wolf-boy raised by a loving pair of wolf parents after nearly being killed by the fierce Bengal tiger Shere Khan.
Of course, Khan, like other animals in the story, including Hathi the elephant, has reasons for hating man, so murderous though he is, he’s not completely without our sympathy.
Besides the familiar characters of Baloo the sloth bear, Bagheera the panther, Kaa the python, and those dangerous but sort of fun monkeys (Bandar-Log), in this version of the story, we meet Mowgli’s human family: his sister Maya (Miriam Fernandes) and mother Messua (Anita Majumdar). And there’s also Buldeo (Matt Lacas), representing the worst of mankind as he wields a cruel elephant prod.
While I’m never sure that the contemporary framework of the urban jungle of New York, complete with Mowgli texting on his cell phone, is really necessary (I know, it’s supposed to help today’s kids relate), the production overall does succeed in translating Kipling’s original to a more modern sensibility. Valayil is an engaging, appropriately physical Mowgli who interacts convincingly with the animals of his world (who are in turn portrayed skillfully by Lacas, Majumdar and Fernandes, aided by props, costumes and shadow puppetry), as well as with his audience. And yes, there is a message here, but one delivered in an entertaining fashion that feels faithful to the spirit of the original.
Jungle Book continues through June 24; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.