Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories “The Jungle Book” has been enchanting readers of all ages ever since it was first published in 1894, although most modern-day audiences are more familiar with the 1967 Disney animated film version or the stunning CGI-heavy live-action film the Mouse House released two years ago. But the Pasadena Playhouse hopes to change that with its latest production, a stage version of “Jungle Book” that combines eye-popping video and interactive technology with the whimsical and soulful stories and poems from the original novel.
The production employs a rich soundscape, immersive multimedia, inventive puppetry and a variety of new and traditional theatrical traditions to transport audiences to the world’s jungles. The stories are set in India, where Shere Khan the tiger and Baloo the bear are the prime animals, and the principal human is the boy or “man-cub” Mowgli.
“It’s not a musical, but a play with some songs in it,” says Craig Francis, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-created the show with Rick Miller. “What my co-writer and I did was go back to Kipling’s writing, where there are poems and illustrated frontispieces before some of the chapters. We set some to music but I wouldn’t call it a musical, rather a play with some songs in it.
“The Mowgli story is at its core but there are other stories throughout,” Francis continues. “We also follow Mowgli going back into town. He ultimately was banished from the jungle, but isn’t human enough for the town and gets banished from the town. There’s an interesting through-line for kids to relate to having families in one place and another place and which are you loyal to with dispersed families and divorce? All the questions are asked in a good coming of age story.”
This iteration of “Jungle Book” is a nearly new production, with the Playhouse marking its first stop after its world premiere at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, Florida last month. The show is Francis and Miller’s follow-up to their hit 2015 adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” which also employed multimedia techniques throughout an extended tour across the United States and Canada, resulting in a rave review from The New York Times, which called it “magical, jaw-dropping, frisky, nifty and zesty.”
Audiences over 50 are probably most familiar with this story through the 1967 Walt Disney adaptation, starring the voices of actor, singer and comedian Phil Harris as Baloo the Bear, English actor George Sanders as Shere Khan, the human-hating Bengal tiger, jazz great Louis Prima as King Louie, an orangutan who wants to be a human, and Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera, a black panther determined to save the life of Mowgli, the “man cub” raised by wolves, voiced by Bruce Reitherman.
In 1994 Disney produced a live-action version of the story based on “The Jungle Book” and Rudyard Kipling’s sequel “The Second Jungle Book,” starring Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli, with Cary Elwes, Lena Headey, Sam, Neill and John Cleese.
In 2016, Disney produced yet another version of Kipling’s works, only this time in a live-action CGI production, introducing Neel Sethi as Mowgli and featuring the voice talents of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, and Christopher Walken.
A must-see independently produced Technicolor live-action film version, “Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book,” was released in 1942, produced by Hungarian-born Alexander Korda, directed by his brother Zoltán and art directed by their brother Vincent.
Francis and Miller are both leaders of the Canadian-based 20K Collective, the team through which they produce all their shows. Miller was named by Entertainment Weekly as “one of the 100 most creative people alive today,” and also created and toured solo shows such as the hit sensation “BOOM” and “MacHomer” (which combined the sensibilities of “The Simpsons” with Shakespeare’s classic play “Macbeth”).
Meanwhile, Francis illustrates the cartoons for Canada’s Kidoons Network, in addition to writing and voicing the characters. The videos are on display at museums in four provinces, with millions of views. He has co-developed performing arts software; created award-winning marketing designs and brands; illustrated several books; appeared as a comedian on CBC, CTV, and Showtime; and his voices can be heard in animated series and games.
“We like to call our shows ‘big little shows,’ which are very stripped down and a stylized, four-person cast that plays 21 different human and animal characters,” says Francis. “How do you make an epic story with four actors and a non-Disney budget? We use really high-tech multimedia and immersive projection design, but also low-tech elements like shadow puppets and puppets on sticks and using hands for shadows on the wall. It’s quite different from treatment people have seen before.”
“Jungle Book” opens at 8 p.m. Thursday and runs through July 29 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $20 to $44. Call (626)356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.