Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis has taken on the challenge of mounting a new production of a beloved children's classic, while trying to avoid the Disney influence, not terrify little kids, and use only five actors.
Writer and director Greg Banks knew many people were familiar with the 1967 Disney animated version of "The Jungle Book," so he went back to the source: the 1894 book by Rudyard Kipling, as well as "The Second Jungle Book" published by Kipling the following year. Then he began writing.
"I wanted to find an original take on the story," he said. "One that would reinvent the story for audiences that thought they knew it. And so I hope that's what we've done."
It's the story of Mowgli, a baby in India who wanders away from his village into the jungle. A pack of wolves finds and raises him. Banks says people will recognize the story, although he's written a different ending. He says, despite all the animals, it's a tale about human experience.
"The notion of Mowgli being adopted by a bunch of animals in this case, but it could be people being adopted by people and having to grow up and then find out where he really comes from," he said. "So really it's just a story about growing up and being alive and making friends and understanding how to survive in the world."
Mowgli has to learn about the jungle, and its dangers. He meets Baloo the Bear, Kaa the Snake, a whole troop of monkeys, and the dreaded tiger Shere Khan.
"And the thing that you are going to notice is that it is performed a cast of by five actors and one musician," said actor Eric Sharp.
Actor Eric Sharp plays the challenging role of Mowgli. He begins the play as a newborn, goes through toddlerhood, and finally becomes a boy with an understanding of the tough realities of jungle life.
Eventually he has to deal with the tiger, whose all-consuming hatred of humans is focused on Mowgli.
"I grew up in the jungle," Mowgli says. "I've obeyed the laws of the jungle. There's no wolf from whose paw I have not pulled a thorn. Surely they are my brothers. Why did they listen to Shere Khan? Don't they know he's just a bully and a coward? I'll show them who Shere Khan really is."
Sharp is quick to say he thinks he has an easy job compared with his fellow cast members as they switch between all the other characters.
"And I feel in awe of the other actors because I'm the one with the through-line ... that means that I get to sit still and watch these guys break their tails in beautiful artistic ways, changing costumes and going to those places theatrically that make this a fun live piece."
He is particularly fond of one part in the play.
"The monkeys are crazy!" he laughs.
Mowgli joins a troop of monkeys who cavort in the treetops. Sharp says its comedy gold.
"We are up in these gorgeous trees playing around, throwing things at each other. It's just crazy but I think it adds a lot to the play."
The fun explodes across a beautiful jungle set. It allows the actors to jump and climb from floor level, up the sides of an abandoned temple, all the way into the upper branches.
A constant for everyone in the production is remembering who will be watching "The Jungle Book." The Children's Theatre recommends the play for kindergarteners and older. The show has been in previews this week and director Greg Banks says he's been watching how young audiences react to the subject matter which veers between raucous fun and the fear of the tiger.
"It is a tough story and I'm just trying to find a way to calibrate the darkness of Shere Khan and the fun for the monkeys to just get a balance there, but not lose the strength of the story, so that's something I'm thinking about constantly really," Banks said.
Banks does have one useful ruse which works for younger audiences: the cast member playing Shere Khan comes out after the end of the play to answer questions.
"So they actually see that the actor is a person not a tiger," he says.
Actor Eric Sharp wonders half-seriously if that might also be a comfort to adults in the audience too.