Theatrical Review – Disney’s The Jungle Book KIDS
By Dick Franztreb
I’ve gone to many El Dorado Musical Theatre productions, and I’ve come to expect that each one will be unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This show, opening night of Disney’s The Jungle Book KIDS, was no exception.
What was especially dazzling about EDMT’s interpretation of The Jungle Book was the incredible profusion of brightly colred, creative, fanciful costumes. They were not animal suits, but costumes with tops, bottoms, hats and accessories – all evocative of an animal. So the adorable vultures had top hats, striped vests, and collars of white feathers. Colonel Hathi, the leader of the elephants had elephant ears; but he also had a pith helmet and a uniform (with medals) reminiscent of the British army. The black panther, Bagheera, wore a black turban and black gloves (and a tail, of course). It was an award-worthy costuming tour-de-force by Christine Martorana and her large costume team.
The show had barely started when I found myself thinking, “Can all these kids be 14 and under?” It’s true. The requirement for participating in these annual “Rising Stars” productions is that children have not started high school. I scanned the stage during the first big production number, and I didn’t see little kids mechanically going through their programmed motions. I saw, maybe not all, but mostly confident, sophisticated performers. And then I thought, “What person in their right mind would choose to stay at home and watch TV, if they knew what was taking place on this stage?” These were all remarkable young actors in a production so sophisticated that no one would dare call it, or even think of it, as “children’s theatre.”
As always, the choreography was a total delight, especially when the stage was packed with 64 performers. This time it was the work of choreographer, Kat Bahry, and assistant choreographer and EDMT standout performer, Anjie Rose Wilson. And as has happened to me so often before, I was simply amazed at the discipline and coordination of all those kids as they performed complicated dance routines.
The set was impressive, as always, though fairly static, with the scene changes suggested by the images projected on the back of the stage and on set pieces. As in so many recent productions, this was the work of 14-year-old Zach Wilson, an all-around performer now equally expert as a projection designer. What was new and notable in his work for this production was the animation of the projections, and their increased sophistication.
This show was double-cast (128 performers altogether!) and since I only saw the Fire Cast, I’m hesitant to comment about individual performers, but I can’t resist mentioning a few. First, 12-year-old Nick Ribadeneira as Mowgli was so impressive with his poise and excellent acting, dancing, and singing. Isabelle Weaver gave an inspired interpretation of the treacherous snake, Kaa. And Kyra Schneider as Bagheera and Stephen Knoble at Baloo sang with the strength and accuracy of much older vocalists. In fact, I was impressed with all the singing I heard, solo and ensemble. Then there was Maya Ribadeneira as King Louie (the monkey king). EDMT is fundamentally an educational organization, and I don’t believe they like to think of any of their kids as “stars” – they’re busy developing the potential of everyone. But Maya just sparkled during the “I Wanna Be Like You” number, and I think the whole audience recognized it. To me, she had all the charm, talent, and spunk of Shirley Temple in her heyday. I couldn’t stop watching her.
There’s acting, and then there’s personality and charisma. These young performers acted their parts and moved and sang with accuracy. But I was close enough to look into the faces of these kids, and I saw far more than playing a role, doing what they were trained to do. In face after face, I saw youthful energy, living in the moment, and pure joy in creating an experience for themselves and the audience. And that joy was infectious.