Greg Banks' shows at the Children's Theatre Company are a sure thing. The confident and inventive director always gives us engaging, lively, and thoughtful productions, such as Huck Finn, Romeo and Juliet, and Pinocchio. This time out, Banks puts his signature stamp on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.
Kipling's conceit is a pretty simple one: what happens to a young boy who is raised by a horde of anthropomorphic animals in the jungle. This isn't the Disney version (though you could hear "The Bare Necessities" in the lobby beforehand). Instead, Banks' version hews much closer to Kipling's original tales of Mowgli and his animal friends. That means there is death in this version. It's the jungle. Some things are gonna die.
Axl Rose allusions aside, the stage version follows Mowgli from his discovery in the jungle, adoption into a family of wolves, and his eventual education by an unlikely duo of teachers: Baloo, a sleepy sloth bear; and Bagheera, a sleek black panther. His main trouble? The ever-angry Bengal tiger Shere Kahn, who wants nothing more than to make the man-cub his dinner.
Mowgli's impulsive side also gets the best of him. Like most teenagers, he isn't all that interested in listening to his teachers. Instead, he falls in with a pack of monkeys, who make him their leader before turning on him. Between that and the ever-present threat of Shere Kahn, life in the jungle is dangerous for our young boy.
Banks weaves the different stories together (Kipling wrote a number of adventures about Mowgli in the Indian jungle) into a cohesive whole. From there, it is up to the five-actor company to bring it to life. Everyone, with the exception of Eric Sharp as Mowgli, plays multiple animals.
Casey Hoekstra may mainly play the villainous Shere Kahn, but he also gets to have turns as a monkey, wolf, and vulture. H. Adam Harris is a perfect Baloo, and Autumn Ness brings out both the warmth and essential cat-ness of Bagheera, but both also spend time decked out as wolves and monkeys.
The company is rounded out by Nastacia Nicole, who plays both Mowgli's loving wolf mother and the mysterious python Kaa, who solves Mowgli's monkey troubles with a slithering, hypnotic dance (and it doesn't end well for our simian cousins; again, it's the jungle).
Joseph Stanley gives them a beautiful, fully realized set that looks like a lot of fun to play on, as it is full of ropes to climb, rocks to clamor over, and gaps to jump. Victor Zupanc adds in lively and engaging music that not only sets the scene, but helps to draw us into the world that the actors, Banks, and Kipling have made.
IF YOU GO:
The Jungle Book
Through December 6
Children's Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 612-874-0400 or visit online.