Enjoy a Renaissance for Children’s Theatre with “The Jungle Book”

We are living through a renaissance for children in Sarasota. A decade ago, our decision to start a family in town seemed an unusual step, but now everywhere you look offerings for children can be found in nearly every part of the local arts and culture scene.

Florida Studio Theatre recently concluded a second full season of children’s shows and is offering a summer cabaret. Currently, Asolo Repertory Theatre has embarked on its third major children’s show, “The Jungle Book,” which opened last weekend in the Mertz Auditorium. Additionally, it is hard to snatch seats for Circus Spectacular 2018 playing next door at the Historic Asolo Theatre.

I am thrilled to see this panoply of live theater offerings for young children, which I believe is a core part of a child’s life and certainly goes a long way toward much needed audience development, particularly in a town with an aging theater-going demographic.

“The Jungle Book” takes a modern look at the life of Mowgli, the much-loved Rudyard Kipling character who was raised by wolves in the forest. When we meet Mowgli, he has moved to New York City to work as an architect with dreams of balancing nature and development.

Levin Valayil as Mowgli (photo by Gary W. Sweetman)

This is an epic theme, particularly for Sarasotans who are watching major development rise up all around this once sleepy beach town. Levin Valayil (Mowgli) captures the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a wolf boy in the big city as well as his relative ease living in the wild with his parents and caretakers Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther. Valayil has a lovely voice and moves smoothly in each of the worlds he inhabits. His sister Maya played by Miriam Fernandes is feisty and imaginative. Together Valayil and Fernandes have a magical connection and are very in touch with their inner children to create the vibrancy their respective roles demand.

Valayil and Fernandes as Mowgli and Maya (photo by Gary W. Sweetman)

Less successful is Matt Lacas as Baloo and others, who lacks the powerful voice the role demands and also missing was the classic song “The Bare Necessities” which made Baloo such a lovable and timeless Disney character.

Although this was an inventive staging of “The Jungle Book” which makes masterful use of lighting design to transport us to the different worlds Mowgli inhabits, the story does not quite carry the bold artistic decisions. Mowgli lacks clear motivation for his decision to become an architect and his desire to bring nature into city-life was given short shrift. Very young children might find some of the dark lighting and darker plot points scary. However, older children will likely delight in the creativity that brings 21st technology to this classic tale.

Cast of “The Jungle Book” (photo by Gary W. Sweetman)

With a summer of fun in store in Sarasota, “The Jungle Book” is a great opportunity to expose children to theater. I applaud Asolo Repertory Theatre for continuing to make creative children’s theater choices available to Sarasota families. The play continues through June 24th. Next season, Asolo Repertory will bring its unique touch to “Around the World in 80 Days.”

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