The colorful characters and exotic setting of “The Jungle Book” came alive at the Tisbury School last weekend. A fun staged version of the animated film featured fine, mature performances, wonderful costumes, crowd-pleasing high jinks and, of course, the memorable songs from the family classic.
The 1967 animated film is very loosely based on Rudyard Kipling’s popular series of short stories. For the film version, the Disney team borrowed a number of the characters and tied some of the storylines together to create a family-friendly tale featuring anthropomorphized animals. The stage version, created in 2005, follows the film scene by scene and includes all of the catchy tunes — making it familiar to those acquainted with the movie.
In the hands of second-time director Reuben Fitzgerald and choreographer Cathy Weiss, and under the musical direction of David Arruda, the large group of kids — from 5th to 8th graders — did a wonderful job of capturing both the characteristics of the jungle animals and the sheer fun of the play’s slapstick comedy.
Emily Hewson as the panther/narrator Bagheera delivered a consistently polished performance. As Baloo, the goofy, hillbilly bear, Cody Chalifoux proved himself a natural clown. Ashley Wood was recruited at the last minute to fill in for an ailing Ava Petricone as the sinister tiger Shere Khan. Ashley, who also played the monkey leader King Louie, managed double duty admirably. Her turn as the orangutan king (voiced by jazzman Louis Prima in the film) had just the right amount of attitude and liveliness. Her tiger slink was perfect and she caught the menacing tone of the play’s villain wonderfully.
The elephant “army” led by the pompous Colonel Hathi (Elizabeth Williamson) and his wife Winifred (Salyn Yancey) provided some of the most fun moments in the show. The grey sweatsuited elephants, played as a regimental troupe with Hathi as a tough drill sergeant, made a grand entrance through the audience that delighted the crowd.
As Kaa, the python, Devon Teves with a huge stuffed snake coiled around him, captured his serpentine character — alternately menacing and buffoonish — very admirably.
Ben Nadelstein played the story’s hero, Mowgli, a young boy raised by animals, and he was very visibly enjoying himself throughout. His mugging and pratfalls provided some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Last year the 8th grader played the king in Cinderella. He attended theater camp this past summer in New York City and aspires to a show business career. In an interview backstage he pointed out that his father, Sandy Nadelstein, recently wrote, produced, and acted in a sitcom pilot. Another talented member of the family, 6th grader Gabe played one of the Jungle Book’s monkeys.
Ben remarked that he enjoyed making people laugh and said, “It’s a fun night at the dinner table with me, Gabe, and my dad.” In addition to acting, he hopes to pursue his interest in singing next year in high school. Ben practiced some method acting in preparing for the role of the 10-year-old Mowgli. He notes that he observed the younger kids at school. “I pretended that I was a little kid again,” he said.
A born entertainer, Ben showed off a bit of sleight of hand with a quarter at the end of the interview.
Elizabeth Williamson, who played the elephant leader, Colonel Hathi, said that doing the English accent was the hardest part. She and a few of the other actors did a fine job impersonating Brits. Elizabeth noted that, as a group, the kids practiced imitating the various jungle creatures in preparation for the show. The animal portrayals — a slinking tiger, droopy-winged vultures, hyperactive monkeys and plodding, trunk-swinging elephants — really added a lot to the show.
Cody Chalifoux, who played Baloo, was acting for the first time. He said that the role of the easy-going, fun-loving bear was a natural fit for him. He said that he especially enjoyed the mock fights. “All the fake punches — stellar.”
Family and consumer science teacher Alice Robinson, with the help of Barra Peak, created all of the costumes from the ground up. She says, “This is the first year that I haven’t been able to redo things we had in stock.” The animal costumes were exceptionally well done with a combination of realism and imaginative fun.
This was Mr. Fitzgerald’s second time directing the school play. He took over as social studies teacher last year and also inherited his predecessor’s role in leading the production of the annual school play. Mr. Fitzgerald says that he chose the Jungle Book based on his 2½;-year-old daughter’s appreciation of the movie. “I watched her eyes light up watching the animals,” he said. “I thought it would be a fun show for young kids, and all the kids.”
His prediction proved accurate. The children, even the youngest in the audience, showed their appreciation with enthusiastic laughter throughout the show, especially during the slapstick scenes. According to Mr. Fitzgerald, the actors had a lot of fun in rehearsals, which began in September. He notes that some of the newcomers have “caught the acting bug.”
Referring to the all-student stage crew, as well as the performers, Mr. Fitzgerald said, “The kids were awesome. They really were so delightful to work with.”