A terrific set and wonderful lighting design help set the mood in the Arvada Center's Jungalbook, a worthy adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling children's story.
In a mysterious green jungle somewhere in India, a little man-cub is born and abandoned only to be retrieved by a stately panther and reared by a noble wolf. As young Mowgli grows, he wonders about his identity--especially when he learns he has an enemy. The wicked Sherakhan is a tiger who waits for years to eat Mowgli, even though Jungle Law forbids it. Baloo the Bear, the wise old shaman of the animals, sings of "Jungle Law," guiding the big cats away from each other and the wolves, monkeys and the rest to observe truces and behave according to the limits of their species.
As Mowgli seeks help and advice from Bagheera the panther, Baloo the Bear and the commanding Kaa, a female snake who slithers and dips through most of the action, he faces Sherakhan's fangs again and again. No other animal can dare look Mowgli in the eye. That is an important issue--the role of dominance in the jungle--and of course, Sherakhan is the dominant creature. But Kaa and Mowgli outsmart him and the tiger drowns. For some reason, the death of Sherakhan doesn't disturb the children in the audience at all--they took it all in stride the day I saw it.
The show is short on plot--there's a lot of talk and singing, so the kids don't get as giggly as they have at past Arvada Center shows (notably last year's What Really Happened Once Upon a Time, which was far wittier and even more capably produced). Yes, the animals are anthropomorphized, but they are not completely sentimentalized--they retain fierceness, courage and cunning. A fine cast and a lively score by Steve Stevens help to smooth over the script's limitations.
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Andrew Shoffner stars as Mowgli, and though he doesn't get the innocence thing just right, he is wonderfully limber and moves with the speed and dexterity the role requires. Most impressive is Anthony Choice as Baloo the Bear. This terrific young actor is currently starring in Suds across town at the Vogue, so it was a delight to see him play ponderous age so very well. The whole cast slithers, lumbers and swings through the giant jungle gym of a set with so much grace and style that the whole thing really does feel alive and kicking.
Jungalbook, through May 23 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.