Finding children’s theater performances that are also engaging to adults can be a challenge, but Philadelphia’s Arden Children’s Theater performance of “The Jungle Book” fits the bill. The play is based on the story by Rudyard Kipling, and directed by Matthew Decker, who as a young child spent much of his time at the Philadelphia Zoo using his imagination and pretending that he–“like Mowgli in ‘The Jungle Book’–lived among the animals.”
The Jungle Book: Pre-Show
Before even making it into the theater, the audience is greeted with a home-made forest of sorts–with children designing and bringing their own leaves to the theater to be added to the jungle greenery. The leaves each have explanations as to what family means to the young artists.
Pint-sized ushers showed us into the theater stage as part of a program that allows children seven and older to usher the show and receive a backstage tour at the theater. The programs we received, although seeming much like a Playbill, also contained word scrambles asking its young readers to “monkey around with grammar” and do a seek and find while waiting for the show to begin.
And before it does, a number of children who volunteer are invited to come down from their seats and sit on comfortable pillows in the theater’s circular stage pit. They are soon to become members of the wolf-clan, and will have a truly close-up view of the production.
Actors emerge prior to the show and invite the audience to help create the jungle atmosphere. This entailed us all howling like wolves, roaring like the big cats, chanting like monkeys and birds (there were some truly interesting bird interpretations) and hissing like snakes.
We then learned about the jungle floor–a cool, damp place–often due to rain storms. We were instructed on how to “pass along” the wind, rain and thunder until there was a full-fledged sound storm coming from the audience. The rubbing of hands, snapping of fingers, slapping of knees and stomping of feet following a wave-like pattern allowed for our “storm” to happen.
If your children have not already seen Disney’s animated, musical version of “The Jungle Book,” hold off on having them see it until after they’ve seen the show. It’s best for them to have no preconceived notions about this new version, the characters or their physicality. In this show, the actors said they “spent time imagining what it would be like to be an animal, to live in the jungle and most importantly, different animals would move.” The costumes are not nearly as literal as in other plays such as “The Lion King,” but rather, the actors work to bring the characters to life through their movements and personalities.
Up Close and Personal
For children sitting in the center, a scene with water had them creating the sea (in a parachute fashion) that Mowgli could swim under and through. Actors jumped over their heads repeatedly. They were loved and also admonished as members of the wolf pack or the jungle monkeys.
A coconut throwing scene (imaginary coconuts) with the monkeys had the kids in stitches. A pair of vultures also acted as comic relief, telling jokes about monkeys. (Sample joke: Why should you not play cards with monkeys in the jungle? Because there are too many cheetahs!) They clearly know a large portion of their audience. Shere Khan, the tiger, is portrayed as a bully and a coward, allowing for themes of sticking up for those who are being bullied. There are strong messages throughout the show that include the major theme that “we are all connected,” no matter what we look like, who we love, or what creed we follow.”
After the Show
Following the show, as the lights go up, the actors come out and answer questions from kids in the audience. Questions asked after this performance included, “How did you change costumes so quickly?” We were introduced to Gil, the costume and prop master backstage. Other questions were “Why do your shoes stay so quiet? Do you make your own costumes? How do you jump so far?” The actors explained how they had been given only a few days to become accustomed to the theater and learn how to run, jump and slide on the still unfinished set. “How do you make your voices echo?” came with an explanation about what a sound director does, followed by what the stage managers and directors do.
If your child doesn’t have a chance to ask a question during the performance, the actors (in costume) will also come out to the lobby afterwards to answer more and pose for pictures.
For other interesting (and free!) things to do while you’re in Philadelphia, check out some other TravelingMom blogs that will show you where to see famous spots where movies have been shot in the city or things to do with the family there even if you have bad weather.
“The Jungle Book” runs through June 21st.