Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, gets a contemporary reworking in this touring production of Jungle Book. Presented by Young People’s Theatre, this multi-media presentation retains the basic shape and spirit of the original stories, but places an truncated version of them in a current context.
In this adaptation, by creators Craig Francis and Rick Miller, Mowgli is also our narrator. We first meet him in the bustling city of New York, where he works as an architect consumed with guilt for designing buildings that erase the natural world. Opening his Jungle Book, an illustrated journal of his early life and a framing device for this interpretation, he takes us back to the forest in India where his story begins.
Being physically human yet living with animals and internalizing their way of life, he is torn between two worlds. After reconnecting with his biological mother and sister, his sense of displacement intensifies. As his presence stirs up tension in the jungle, we meet many familiar characters: Baloo the bear, Bagheera the black panther, the treacherous tiger Shere Khan and, of course, Kaa the hypnotic, sinister python.
As Mowgli, Levin Valayil is sinewy and buoyant. His energy is infectious, though I didn’t find his asides as narrator particularly useful or engaging. As he sneaks downstage to talk to the audience, the flow of the story is broken and little is gained from the disruption.
As the action unfolds, like a storybook come to life, the space feels vast and teeming with creatures. It threw me a little when the cast came out for their curtain call; though it feels like so much more, there are only four of them: Valayil and three supporting players—Mina James, Matt Lucas and Tahirih Vejdani—handling several roles each.
The modest set—two modular ramps, a large screen backdrop and scrim panels down front—comes to lush and vivid life with Irina Litvinenko’s projections. Astrid Janson and Melanie McNeill’s puppets provide some grounded tangibility—their eerily life-like baby Mowgli is particularly impressive. With this blend of projections, puppetry and shadowplay, the production conjures immersive jungle environments and charismatic animals to inhabit them.
The text borrows from other Kipling works, most notably his poem If. Its lyrical wisdom—a father fostering virtue and integrity in his young son—is woven throughout this adaptation. In a choice that seems very pointed, Francis and Miller have quashed any potentially contentious gendering by swapping out the “you’ll be a Man, my son!” closing line for a less potent, though certainly more inclusive, “then you’ll be just fine.”
A departure from the Americana of the Disney film, Suba Sankaran’s songs offer a more culturally resonant Indian influence. This Jungle Book isn’t going for catchy Broadway rhythms, it’s considerably more earthy, and its persuasive music serves the story well.
In the end, Mowgli’s desire to create city buildings that integrate nature and technology—thereby achieving a balance between humanity and nature—feels almost too perfect, but his vision is optimistic, comforting and nicely bookends this re-telling.
With a lot of plot delivered at a quick pace, I did wonder how much of story could be followed by the youngest members of the audience. All the kids seemed enthralled by the vivid characterizations and overall spectacle, so its magic holds firm regardless. Staying for the brief Q&A could be helpful, though, as key elements of the story and its themes are reinforced.