Why The Jungle Book is “Better than the Circus”

The thing about kids is that they require constant vigilance. You have to be forever one step ahead of them, and you have to assess all the possible outcomes of any given situation before you say “yes” (or “no” or “have another chocolate”) to anything.

Having taught preschool for several years, I used to be pretty good at this. But it’s been a while. Which is why, when PIC and I took the nephew (who I’m going to start referring to as Thing 1) and his cousin to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (what a mouthful!) down at the Wachovia Center on Thursday night, I not only forgot to bring our tickets but I also failed to consider the logistics of sharing the $8 box of standard issue popcorn.

“I know!” a voice inside my head exclaimed, “I’ll just ask for two extra cups at the bar.”

But there is no such thing as “two extra cups” at the Wachovia Center.

At least not for free.

Not when these ridiculous things are going for $15 a pop:

elephant

So I dumped my own personal bag of snacks (dark chocolate and pecans) into my purse, filled the little Ziploc with popcorn for Thing 1 and let his cousin (who is a few years older) hold the box.

When Saturday afternoon rolled around and it was time to head out to Pennsylvania Ballet II’s The Jungle Book, I wasn’t taking any chances. Our tickets were being held at the box office and I divvied up the snacks before we left the house: two Hershey kisses for Thing 1 and three for me in case Thing 1 ate both of his before the show started and got bored.

I failed, however, to fully consider the possibilities—the terrible, terrible possibilities of giving a four year old two foil-wrapped chocolates to hold in his pocket. And ohhhh did he hold them. By the time we got off the train, they were completely melted and somehow all over his face. He could have been in The Jungle Book.

Mowgli

Pennsylvania Ballet II Dancer Michael Matthews in Colby Damon’s The Jungle Book.      Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

 

But let’s back up: As Thing 1 loves trains, his mother dropped him off at my house so we could ride the subway together rather than dropping him off downtown. He also loves to deposit his own token so getting through the turnstile takes somewhat longer than usual.

You can hear the train approaching from the street and after living here for a year and a half, I’ve learned that I can make it from the entrance to the platform in about fifteen seconds if I run, which is just enough time to jump on board.

Four year olds, however, aren’t quite as fast. And even though Thing 1 is quite tall for his age (too tall to scoop up and carry in a fifteen-second dash through the turnstiles and down the steps), he’s too young to run through the subway himself and is quite concerned about stair safety overall.

(When my brother proposed to his mother a few months back and I was walking backwards down a set of steps at Washington Avenue Green to ensure Thing 1’s little brother didn’t fall, he turned to me and very politely said, “It isn’t safe to walk down steps backwards. You might get hurt.”)

On this occasion, he cried, “We’re missing the train!”

“It’s okay,” I told him. “We’ll get the next one.”

But of course the next one took forever to arrive, thereby eating up my entire 15-minute buffer zone and requiring us to run the rest of the way to the theater.

Luckily there were no more steps and we had just enough time to wash off the chocolate so that Thing 1 could go back to looking like he was “going to church” (his words, not mine) and gulp down a few sips of water before taking our seats.

The set, designed by Sebastienne Munheim/White Box Theatre was very colorful. The audience, however, was not. Besides my nephew, one other boy and an infant already asleep, all of the other kids seated on the little carpet squares at the end of the stage were white. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be The Nutcracker all over again. The original Jungle Book isn’t exactly known for its anti-racist sentiments… was a Rudyard Kipling novel really the best way for PA Ballet to launch itself into the world of children’s programming?

Well, yes actually.

Narrator Anthony Martinez-Briggs completely re-wrote the story. And while some of the metaphors were a bit too complicated for my nephew (and presumably other four year olds) to follow) his treatment gave the tale a much needed update. You still had your jungle creatures and your “man cub,” danced brilliantly by Michael Matthews, but there weren’t any apes and Shere Khan was, much to my nephew’s surprise, “a girl! You can see her long hair!”

Instead of King Louie and his “aping” band, there were three “Bandar-Log of the Trees, Keepers of Jest.” Considering the underlying racial stereotypes in the 1967 Disney film, in which critics claim the character of King Louie was meant to represent jazz musician Louis Armstrong, this was a wise choice. Choreographer Colby Damon made the three monkeys silly but not stupid and physical comedy reads very differently on three light skinned adolescents than it does on cartoon apes.

Monkies

Pennsylvania Ballet II Artists in Colby Damon’s The Jungle Book. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

The best surprise, however, was dancer Devaughn McGann who played the wolf Akela, Leader of the Free people. Costume designer Rebecca Kanach avoided the obvious faux-fur route and created instead a world of color and whimsy. McGann and fellow wolf Jaqueline Callahan wore silvery blue unitards with pink and purple fringe; they crossed the stage, drawing the audience into a magical world with an arched back howl. In a later section meant to demonstrate Mowgli’s growth, the pair executed a tight series of jumps; whirling attitude turns simulated a battle between animal species. Most importantly in my opinion, however, my nephew got to see someone who looked like him up on stage.

Sophia Nelson was every bit her character’s namesake as “Kaa, The Patient One” in a yellow and green suit that accentuated her controlled movements. Durante Verzola had a hard act to follow thanks to the enduring catchiness of those darn “bare necessities” but he remained true to the goofy but yogic re-imagining of “Baloo, The Wise, Seer of Patterns.”

I wish I had seen more of Rowan Duffy, who seemed to appear for just a moment as a little porcupine, and of the school’s younger dancers in general. There were dozens in The Nutcracker so I know they exist, and they’re all quite well trained. A larger ensemble piece would have been a nice contrast to the succession of solos and duets and would have given the younger audience members a chance to see themselves onstage.

Snake

And while most of the cast wore half masks of some sort (Kaa’s slid up off her head for the purposes of ingesting a wayward monkey) younger dancers often struggle with maintaining convincing facial expressions; The Jungle Book was, unfortunately, no exception. Full masks would solve this problem, I think, and would enhance the enjoyment of the score as well.

Composer John B. Hedges spoke to the children before the show and asked them demonstrate a variety of animal sounds; he then explained that a number of different musical instruments would be making those sounds but this didn’t quite “read” when, for example, McGrann lunged to howl but didn’t open his mouth.

Despite these quibbles, however, the program was quite entertaining overall. And even though my nephew was quick to point out that “the elephant wasn’t real like the ones we saw in the circus because you could see people pushing its legs,” there was still, you know, a life sized elephant.

Onstage.

In a children’s ballet.

And with Ringling Brother’s set to phase out their elephants by 2018, programs like this may offer a much more suitable alternative for spectacles of the large mammalian nature. And, more importantly, a perfect way to introduce young children to music and dance within a wider context of friendship and self acceptance.

In the words of Thing 1, it was “even better than the circus” and that’s pretty high praise considering the big top production boasted motorcycles instead of “girl shoes.”

Panther

Pennsylvania Ballet II Dancer Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan in Colby Damon’s The Jungle Book. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Additional Performances:

April 9:  Upper Darby Performing Arts Center (601 North Lansdowne Avenue, Drexel Hill, PA) 11:00am

April 23: Ware Center at Millersville University (42 North Prince Street, Lancaster, PA) 11:00am

 

2 Responses to “Why The Jungle Book is “Better than the Circus””

  1. Leah

    Your nephews are so lucky! Such opportunities they have with you.

    You bring up so many interesting thingsI have never even thought to question. I want to sit and watch a whack of Disney movies with you (with the ability to pause for your commentary through-out). Your students are also fortunate.

    Reply

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