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Theater review: 'Jungle Book' a memorable first-theater experience

Giant shadows on the blue-lit backdrop of actors moving into place drew a lot of attention from the small fry in attendance on Saturday afternoon for the opening performance of the Theatre for Young Audiences' production of "The Jungle Book" on the Depot's main stage.

When it comes to an audience buzzing with anticipation, kids absolutely rule. Then director Lacy Habdas came on stage to rev the kiddies up even more and lay down the house rules before the show started.

Mowgli (Emma Harvie), the man-cub abandoned to the jungle, is trying to find his place in the community of jungle animals. His teachers are Baloo the bear (Mike Pederson), Bagheera the black panther (Cory Anderson), and Akela the old wolf (Kitara Peterson).

This is not a stage version of the Disney animated musical film. However, there is original music by Blake Thomas consisting of a couple songs and Beth Brophy playing drum and flute in turn on stage, both to provide backing for singers and atmosphere for scenes.

The jungle of Evan Kelly's spectacular set design is defined by towering textured tree trunks, draped with vines and large leaves, with several large stones strategically strewn on stage.

Most of the characters wear simple masks or ears and tails to signify the animals they are, although Akela has a full mask, the striking Shere Khan (KT Magnolia) is decked out in an Aztec-like jaguar helmet, and the impressive Kaa the snake is a large and very long puppet.

Tracey Power's adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's beloved fables is recommended for kids age 4 and older, but I think it skews older than that. Where I was sitting, the kids were more into the characters than the story, especially when the characters went out of their way to interact with the audience.

I wondered how much of the young audience was attending live theater for the first time, and also how many of them had ever seen a movie version of "The Jungle Book" (my assumption is not many). This matters, because some of the messages, such as finding your place in this world, are rather subtle.

I would have liked more original songs similar to "Laws of the Jungle," which opens and closes the show, or an adaptation featuring a narrator, both of which would help kids focus on the lessons to be learned.

The bombastic Baloo and the trio of hyperactive monkeys (Jonathan Manchester, Garrett Pierce Passer and Peterson) are all big hits with the kids. Then there is the caustic Tabaqui, (also played by Pierce Passer), Shere Khan's right-hand jackal, who delights in telling the kiddies their answers to his questions are really, really wrong.

The climatic fight between Mowgli and Shere Khan is more choreographed gymnastics than violent fisticuffs, ending with the arrogant tiger "hot-tailing" it out of there, so the sense of fun prevails. If "The Jungle Book" is a kid's first theatrical experience, it will be a memorable one.

If you go

What: Theatre for Young Audiences presents "The Jungle Book"

Where: The Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.

When: Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. through Feb. 4

Tickets: Adults $15, students/children $12 at www.duluthplayhouse.org

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