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Review: ‘The Jungle Book’ at Imagination Stage

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Imagination Stage presents The Jungle Book, based on the classic story by Rudyard Kipling and adapted for the stage by Greg Banks. Janet Stanford directs a small cast of five in this production who, by way of talent, ingenuity, and several flash costume changes, bring an entire jungle to life onstage.

Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger uses a multi-leveled stage for this production. Platforms, balconies, stairs, and podiums, all painted with dense, lush greenery, give the actors a lot of range. As movement is a huge factor in this show, every inch of the stage is utilized by the actors, and large set pieces and props are forgone. If an element is needed, such as a cave opening or a large underbrush, the actors become the object themselves, twisting amongst each other into creative poses. This strategy is commonplace for Imagination Stage productions, and helps encourage the (you guessed it) imagination of their young audiences.

Latia Stokes, Nora Achrati, Ryan Andrew Mitchell, Ricardo Frederick Evans, and Justin Weaks. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Much of the atmosphere is achieved through light and sound, provided by Sarah Tundermann and Patrick Calhoun. Dappled moonlight shines onstage, as if it is peeking through thousands of leaves, while bird calls and cricket chirps are heard amid the falling rain. Composer Eric Shimelonis leans heavily on drums and other percussion instruments to highlight the heady, intimidating tone of the Indian jungle. We know that we are in the jungles of India thanks to Costume Designer Kendra Rai, who uses bold India-inspired patterns and styles to dress the actors. Beautifully detailed headdresses depict several animals, from the shabby-fringed fur of a brown bear to the sparkly jeweled eyes of a jaguar. Not only are they gorgeous to look at, but as the actors shift between characters at break-neck speed, they are very practical as well in terms of costume changing.

When Mother Wolf (Nora Achrati) happens upon a lost young “man-cub,” she decides to take him into her pack, who rear him as one of their own. As he grows, Mowgli (Justin Weaks) must learn how to live among the rest of the jungle kingdom, a task taken on by his teachers — a goofy old bear named Balloo (Ryan Andrew Mitchell) and a swift, strict panther named Bagheera (Latia Stokes). Mowgli lives a happy life in the jungle, though danger creeps nearby. The embittered Shere Khan (Ricardo Frederick Evans) is a mighty lion who has been injured by a trap set by humans, and plans to sink his teeth into Mowgli before he grows into what he hates most: a man. Cunning and sly, he makes it his mission to find Mowgli in a vulnerable position. Inevitably, this happens when Mowgli falls for a trick played upon him by a band of mischievous monkeys. Will Mowgli be able to rely on his fellow jungle animals for help?

Ryan Andrew Mitchell and Justin Weaks. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The cast of professional actors all give great performances, but my very favorite facet of the show is the wide variety of movement, arranged by Choreographer Jaya Prasad. Justin Weaks’s Mowgli is a constant stage presence, so he does not take on any other characters. However, his movements as a human raised among wild animals is incredibly interesting to watch, and his agility and strength are very impressive. At one point, while watching him swing amongst the vines, my boyfriend leaned towards me to whisper, “this guy should really do the Ninja Warriors obstacle course.”

I encourage parents to point out how the actors move while they are different animals; from the graceful poise of Bagheera to the galumphing trot of the heavy bear, Baloo, and many others. With a switch of an accessory or two, the actors transform into many different animals, from swinging monkeys and slithering snakes to crouching wolves and stalking birds of prey. When curtain call came and we were reminded that there were, in fact, only five people onstage at a time, I found myself surprised. They made it seem like the cast was easily three times as large.

Imagination Stage’s The Jungle Book is a thrilling feat for the whole family. I highly recommend this production, but they’re only here for a few more weeks – grab tickets while you can!

Running Time: 90 minutesing one 15-minute intermission.

The Jungle Book plays through May 28, 2017, at Imagination Stage – 4908 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call (301) 280-1660, or purchase them online.

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