Rudyard Kipling’s moral fables about the laws of the jungle have been given generous dollops of Indian spice in Imagination Stage’s exotic — but in a kid-friendly way — production of “The Jungle Book.”
Collaborators April-Dawn Gladu and Daniel Levy have come up with musical numbers brightly sprinkled with Hindi words that capture the polyrhythmic complexities of East Asian music but also are accessible to children whose idea of catchy songs begins and ends with the Cheetah Girls. The far-off aura is furthered by Lori Clark’s Indian-flavored percussive dances, performed on Ethan Sinnott’s tropical set, rendered in emerald greens, peacock blues and saffron yellows.
Like the 1967 Disney movie of the same title, “The Jungle Book” concentrates on the “man-cub” Mowgli (Chris Wilson), adopted and raised by wolves after his mother is attacked by the tiger Shere Khan (Ray Ficca). Mother Wolf (Jeri Marshall) provides nurturing, while tutors Baloo (Sasha Olinick) the bear and Bagheera (Jenna Sokolowski) teach him about the jungle’s ethical codes and how to survive in nature.
Although he gets plenty of love and support, Mowgli feels different and apart from his animal family. He has “twigs” instead of paws, no tail to flick, and has to fight with his wits rather than claws or sharp teeth. Mowgli’s struggle to fit in ultimately results in the uniting of the human and animal worlds.
“The Jungle Book” charts Mowgli’s growth in picaresque style as he travels through the jungle and encounters two chattery, joke-spewing monkeys (Nadya Chacon and Jenna Sokolowski, more fun than a barrel of you-know-whats playing a pair of rude, acrobatic apes who peel off such puns as “What’s a snake’s favorite subject? Hiss-tory.”); a sinuous and hypnotic snake named Kaa (Jeri Marshall); and his nemesis, the aging and crafty Shere Kahn.
Mr. Wilson’s Mowgli so convincingly straddles the species that you can acutely feel his discomfort and wonder when he enters a human village for the first time. Hunched over like an animal and sniffing everything in sight, Mowgli senses he is at home but still is endearingly at odds with things like tableware, oil lamps and food that comes in bowls.
“The Jungle Book” depicts the animal world with such vivid realism — tinged with death and darkness — that very small children might be frightened by the sounds and stylized violence. Luckily, these moments usually are leavened by anthropomorphic songs and dances that show a sunnier side of survival.
Imagination Stage’s adaptation of “The Jungle Book” provides more than the bare necessities. It is an opulent, visually and aurally stunning glimpse into cultures that may be foreign to us but are achingly familiar in the universal quest to be loved and appreciated and to find the place where we most belong.
WHAT: “The Jungle Book,” book and lyrics by April-Dawn Gladu, music and lyrics by Daniel Levy
WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda
WHEN: 12:30, 3:30 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 4.
TICKETS: $10 to $20
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS