This lively, fun-packed, family musical has something in it for everybody. It's notoriously difficult to portray animals realistically on stage, but the cast here do a convincing job of capturing the Jungle Book's so-familiar characters – known to everyone, of course, from the iconic Walt Disney version. And while it's hard to put Disney entirely one side (I kept wanting Baloo to burst into a verse of Bear Necessities so we could all sing along), the original music and lyrics were so catchy in places that I found the new tunes playing in my head long after I'd left the theatre.
We meet Mowgli (Kamari Romeo) growing up amongst the wolf cubs in the jungle, dodging his nemesis Shere Khan (Rishi Nair) and the ever-searching Chief Monkey (Gordon Winter). His mentor is the slightly buffoonish Baloo (Doug Devaney), and there's a cute chemistry between Romeo and Devaney, manifesting itself in their playful duet about friendship.
I loved the amount of audience participation encouraged by the cast. It has the feel of a true ensemble piece, with characters hiding amongst the crowd, life-size puppets, and a touch of pantomime thrown in for good measure – what kid wouldn't want to throw a plastic banana at a sleeping Baloo? The songs keep on coming, high energy is maintained throughout, and every character has their moment on stage. Alongside this, the younger members of the cast do a great job supporting as baby wolf-cubs and enthusiastic chimps.
Jokes and laughter are plentiful, and it was obvious to me that the audience of families and friends around me were enjoying themselves as much as I was. The cast are clearly comfortable in their roles and at ease with the audience, a fact that was no better demonstrated than the spontaneous comment Kaa (Amy Sutton) made as a small boy left his seat for a toilet break during her scene. She didn't miss a beat and, in character as the insidious snake, made an ingenious reference to lunch having arrived. Her comic timing was spot on, and I and the audience loved it.
The only real issue was with the audibility of some lines. The more experienced voices of Devaney and Winter carried well through the auditorium, but some of the other characters' songs got slightly lost; sadly, I couldn't always make out the lyrics from my seat at the back of the theatre.
Despite that wrinkle, the cast looked like they were loving every moment of the performance, and danced and sang as if their lives depended on it. It all comes together best in the last, uplifting musical number, where the complicated choreography involving the whole ensemble is simply flawless. It was a delight to watch – and because they all seem to be having such a good time, it's impossible not to get carried along with that enthusiasm and energy. For a couple of hours, as the song goes, “You don't have to worry about a thing”… just sit back and enjoy this night in the jungle.