Flint Youth Theatre creates magic with Jungle Book
FLINT, Mich. – The Flint Youth Theatre knows how to transform a stage into a magical place where children can lose themselves in rich storytelling and escape to a world that engages their senses, their minds and their imaginations.
The Jungle Book, being performed on their proscenium stage at the Bower Theater, devotes itself to being an immersive story to appeal to children of all ages. It runs 90 minutes and omits an intermission so that its audience can stay lost in the exotic world the actors and technicians have created.
Much credit can be given to the scenic designer Ray Zupp, Doug Mueller’s lighting design and Dan Gerics’ original music. Director Janet Haley makes sure all these elements work together for a cohesive vision that creates a jungle where honor, loyalty and growth define the lives of its inhabitants.
Zupp’s set fills the stage with multiple levels representing mountainous rocks, tall trees, protective caves and outcroppings where the animals of the jungle prowl and live their lives. Mueller creates an instant atmosphere with dimmed lighting and rich colors that wash over the stage marking the change in time and location. Gerics creates a sound track that aids the imagination and helps to transport the audience to the wilds of the jungle.
All of this backdrop and creation of scene set the stage for the storytelling that the actors do. From this foundation, they soar in creating the story of Mowgli’s youth and his coming of age in an environment not made for him, but one to which he is able to adapt with the devotion of Mother Wolf and his two teachers.
Young Paige Benner, a homeschool student, plays the part of Mowgli, the man cub adopted by wolves into their family and pact. She has amazing charisma and intense concentration, especially for an actress so young. Not only does she never break, but she demonstrates a strong arc of growth and change throughout the play. She stands head and shoulders with her fellow professional actors, displaying a talent and skill that is equal to theirs. Her physicality captures the changing stages of the man cub’s life, and shows him to be an energetic and adorable creature who inspires others to protect and teach him.
The 7-year-old I brought to the show was completely comfortable with the role of a man cub being played by a girl, but was offended that the script continued to call Mowgli a “he” rather than a “she,” insisting that the change in pronoun would be easy enough to make and would make more sense. As an adult accustomed to gender-neutral casting, the use of pronoun never took me out of the show or seemed amiss, but it was interesting to see things through the eye of a young girl at a different stage of gender politics than her elders.
Brittany Reed is a frequent performer on Flint Youth Theater’s stage and she always brings stature and intensity to her roles. This time around, she is the Mother Wolf, and gives us the introduction to Mowgli and why we should care about his journey. She also first introduces us to the code of the jungle and how love and commitment can cross over species to create one family. Reed is strong in her matronly role and makes it possible for the audience to invest in the future of her young charge.
Amid the intensity and seriousness of the play’s opening, comes the first real moments of comic interlude—Kenyatta DeEtt’s Baloo. He rolls onto the stage and his verbal enthusiasm and physical antics immediately establish him as a memorable character. The large bear, assisted by a fat suit that increases DeEtt’s stage presence, creates a contrast between himself and the more serious personalities of the jungle. He takes delight in the young man cub and shows that even lives fraught with danger can be led with humor and enthusiasm. DeEtt brings to the stage a larger-than-life personality and fully commits to an ethos of optimism and loyalty.
LaTroy Childress, another frequent flier on the Flint Youth Theater stage, makes his first appearance in this story as the mysterious and powerful Bagheera. He then continues the story by creating Mowgli’s wise mentor, a panther who understands the rules and dangers of the jungle and is determined to make this strange, delightful man cub a full member who can survive and thrive in the treacherous environment. Childress moves with the intensity and individuality of a panther, crouching, stretching, and shifting with power and grace.
Saylor Spees has a delightful turn as the mysterious and enigmatic 30-foot-long snake who strikes fear in her enemies while simultaneously being a devoted friend. She brought a unique aura to the character, her body swaying, her voice slithering.
Phil Darius Wallace, the sole Equity actor in this production, plays the role of the villain, the evil Shere Khan who defies the rules of the jungle and continuously demands that Mowgli be handed over to him to be killed. He carries himself with threatening intensity, commanding attention, even when he is merely sneaking through the background to spy on his prey. He never lets the audience forget that Mowgli’s presence is precarious and the danger to enthusiastic cub is real.
The rest of the ensemble stays busy transforming from wolves to monkeys to vultures and humans. Each time they change their movement and help to populate the world of “The Jungle Book,” letting the audience know there is a community and an inter-connected eco-system in which each inhabitant relies on the others.
“The Jungle Book” at Flint Youth Theatre is a magical telling. The artists are all committed to the tale and are able to tell it with an intensity undistracted by crying babies or talking children in the audience. They move through the theater with confidence and concentration, taking their audience with them on this journey to childhood—to a place where growing up is fraught not just with danger, but with love, loyalty and adults committed to their roles as protectors and mentors.