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FAMILY : Audience Walks on Wild Side in 'Jungle Book'

November 10, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MISSION VIEJO — Remember the "George of the Jungle" cartoons? In a parody of the early "Tarzan" movies, they would open with George swinging lustily from vine to vine to a rollicking jungle beat, and just when he got a rhythm going--wham!--he'd smack into a tree and land right on his leopard-skinned keister.

That's how it goes with "The Jungle Book," Tim Kelly's children's show based on the stories by Rudyard Kipling. Only in this show, the "vine" that carries the characters is audience participation: When it's appropriately placed, things move along nicely, but when it's not, everything slams to a halt. Directed by Bunny Lawson, the Paper Bag Players production continues Saturdays and Sundays at noon at the Children's Theatre Village, through Nov. 20.

It follows the troupe's more satisfying premiere production of "Little Red and the Hoods" last summer and features its trademark pre-show activity: For about a half-hour, members of the audience are invited to eat sack lunches and chat with the actors as they put on their makeup. It's a nice chance for older children to learn about the theatrical process (the cast is more than willing to answer questions) and it helps younger children, particularly first-time theatergoers, establish a kinship with the characters and hence stay more connected with them throughout the show.

Audience involvement is a big deal to the Paper Bag Players. In this show, there are at least six scenes in which youngsters are brought on stage to assist the actors and several more in which they provide howls, hoots, caws and other jungle sound effects from their seats.

The kids seem to enjoy it, but the concept worked much better in "Little Red" than it does here, primarily because of the differences in the shows' tones. Where "Little Red" was a spoof through and through, Kelly's script attempts to retain some of Kipling's lyricism and dignity. And while it is darling to watch a small herd of preschoolers brought on stage to simulate stampeding elephants, they can trample a potentially dramatic interlude into smithereens.

*

Kelly also has tossed some pro-environment messages into the script (don't litter, respect other living creatures, etc.) and some references to the value of friendship in the face of adversity. But with all the kid-powered trumpeting and screeching going on, one has to listen closely to catch them.

There are some quieter, more dramatic moments that may touch older children, especially those familiar with Kipling's stories. Lawson's six-member cast makes the most of them without becoming too gushy.

*

Newcomer Lou Guevara's Great Wolf, the narrator, conveys a nice paternal sense in his leadership of the jungle animals, and Michelle Fincher's Bagheera the panther shows flashes of feline cunning (later, Fincher switches gears nicely to portray the loopy Monkey King in one of the show's funnier moments, aided by a troop of volunteer chimps).

Twelve-year-old Joey Scolari, the only youth in the cast, offers a nice, earnest quality and strong, clear delivery as Mowgli, the man-child raised by the animals. Paul Smet's Baloo the bear looks over the boy with tenderness and only a touch of the goofball antics that the character displays in Disney's animated version of the story.

With most of the effects being provided by the audience, the designers of the show get off pretty easily. Uncredited costumes run toward monochromatic sweat suits and body stockings topped by fake-fur manes and simple but effective animal makeup. The smallish stage is bare except for a colorful jungle backdrop, leaving plenty of room for the giggling crowds it will hold during the show.

* "The Jungle Book," Children's Theatre Village, 23891 Via Fabricante, Suite 612, Mission Viejo. Saturdays and Sundays; lunch starts at noon, and the performance starts around 12:40. Through Nov. 20. $5. (714) 581-5402. Running time: 1 hour. Lou Guevara: Great Wolf

Joey Scolari: Mowgli

Paul Smet: Baloo

Michelle Fincher: Bagheera and the Monkey King

Lori Barnes: Kaa

Catherine Crump: Shere Khan

A Paper Bag Players production, written by Tim Kelly from stories by Rudyard Kipling, directed by Bunny Lawson. Producer/stage Manager: Jim Lawson. Lighting: Derek Paulus.

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