Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

ArtsWatch Weekly: Jungle of Eden

A song-and-dance jaunt into Mowgli's jungle and a musical Paradise, plus a week's worth of good reading.


IT’S BEEN A SONG AND DANCE SORT OF WEEK in my little corner of Oregon ArtsWatch, a musical and movement adventure that’s taken me from the jungles of India to the groves of Paradise. First things first: On Saturday I caught a matinee performance of The Jungle Book at Northwest Children’s Theater & School, with a rapt young audience that included a troop of Girl Scouts who took a long enough break from selling cookies to get with the groove and clap, quite happily and rhythmically, to the beat.

A grand blend of sight and sound in “The Jungle Book,” reimagined. Photo: David Kinder / Northwest Children’s Theater & School

In this Jungle Book there’s plenty of beat to get down with, provided emphatically and stylishly by Anita Menon’s choreography and Rodolfo Ortega’s music, both of which combine Western and Indian elements to help nudge Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales away from any hints of English imperialism and more squarely into the sights and sounds and culture of India. Combined with Mary Eggers’ vivid costumes, Paul Brown’s lighting, John Ellingson’s floor-to-ceiling tropical-vine set, and some aerial choreography by Jen Livengood of A-WOL Dance Collective for when the monkeys and the action move up into the trees, the dance and music create a vibrant theatrical atmosphere.

You can see and feel it from the get-go, an exuberant opening burst of overlapping music, dance, and visual spectacle that’s among several revisions from the show’s original production five years ago. “The opening number is a really wonderful collaboration of Western theatrical sounds and traditional Carnatic music. That is brand new,” Menon, whose choreography for The Jungle Book blends traditional Bharatanatyam movements with Western dance styles and a touch of Bollywood, said from Sacramento, where she now lives.

This Jungle Book, directed by Tamara Carroll, is both familiar and very much its own creation. It isn’t a traditional song-and-dance musical, like the version audiences are most likely to know, Disney’s 1967 animated movie musical comedy with its slew of jazzy, catchy, and very American songs. In this one the performers don’t sing songs: The music works like underscoring in a film, and it plays a huge role in providing the flavor and mood of the tale.

Composer Ortega consulted with the classical Indian Carnatic musician and composer Archana Mungara on his score to help root it in Indian culture. Mungara gave Ortega “a basic framework,” said Menon, who adapted the Kipling stories with Sarah Jane Hardy and Pat Moran. “Carnatic music is so complex with the ragas, etc. So we decided to use two/three lines from a Carnatic song as a base. Then (Ortega) layered it with Western theatrical music and blended in the animal sounds, since the purpose was to introduce the animals in the jungle. Which was how I visualized the opening number to be. So overall, a huge collaboration, with layers slowly added one at a time. When I finished choreographing that dance – in my head I thought, ‘this is epic’.” 

This is Menon’s fourth collaboration with NWCT and its artistic director, Hardy – The Jungle Book twice, plus Chitra: The Girl Prince and Tenali: The Royal Trickster – and it reflects the growing assurance the partners have in making cross-cultural shows work. The whole thing moves brashly and breezily, with a smooth and creative blend of student actor/dancers and adult professional actors. Gowri Ganesh stars as the impetuous but good-hearted mancub Mowgli, who’s kept out of trouble by Samson Syharath as Baloo the bear, Emma Sanders as Bagheera the panther, Alana Fagan as Akela the wolf, and others; and Andrés Alcala is a kick in the striped pants as the bad guy Shere Khan the tiger, who nevertheless does have a point: In the animal kingdom, humans are usually bad news. The show has two weekends left, with performances at noon and 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 7.


Erastus Salisbury Field, “The Garden of Eden,” ca. 1860, oil on canvas, 34.7 x 45.8 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

THE JUNGLES OF INDIA ARE PRETTY COOL. BUT A WEEK AGO THIS EVENING I took an even more unlikely jaunt, to the Garden of Eden. It entailed a short drive south to Lakewood Theatre Company in Lake Oswego and back in time to 1966 – much more recent than the computation of the Irish Archbishop James Ussher, who in the year 1650 pronounced that God had begun His six-day creation of the Heavens and the Earth at approximately 6 p.m. on October 22 in the year 4004 B.C. Ussher’s crunching of the numbers left later generations to conclude that perhaps the science of numerology is not entirely Divinely inspired.

It was in 1966 that Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical The Apple Tree opened on Broadway. It’s had its ardent proponents ever since, and a well-received limited-run Broadway revival starring Kristin Chenowith (the original starred Barbara Harris and Alan Alda) in 2006. But it’s never made the splash that Bock and Harnick’s collaboration on a little show called Fiddler on the Roof made a couple of years earlier, and that relative anonymity – The Apple Tree is a charming, witty show that never quite hit the big time – made it a prime candidate for director Ron Daum’s enjoyable and aptly named Lost Treasures Collection. The series is in its tenth season on Lakewood’s downstairs Side Door Stage, providing pared-down, one-weekend-only productions of good shows from Broadway’s long and glittering musical-theater history that didn’t quite light all the lights. 

Daum’s productions skip the glitter and get down to the basics: songs and script, in staged readings with a little bit of blocking. And they draw aficionados like lampposts attract fireflies. The Lost Treasures series is more stripped down than New York City’s Encores! series but plays the same vital role of bringing back old musicals in brief, lean performances that are much cheaper to produce than a full-blown revival. For The Apple Tree, music director Jeffrey Michael Kauffman played piano and Deb Blackwood accompanied him on upright bass. It was plenty enough.

The show’s “lostness” might spring from its structure: Rather than building a grand dramatic narrative like Fiddler, it consists of three short tales that are linked loosely thematically. Mark Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve is followed by Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger? and Jules Feiffer’s Passionella! Each is given a sly twist, and Adam and Eve in particular achieves a wistful sweetness. The singers – Caitlin Upshaw, Alec Cameron Lugo, Trishelle Love, Jessica Brandes, Adam Roper – flit in and out of a bevy of roles (at one point Brandes even takes on the Voice of God, a credit that’ll always look good on a résumé) and deliver a nice sense of the meat of the show. 

Coming up next in the Lost Treasures series is 1962’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale, a smart and funny show with some sharp elbows, set in the Garment District during the Great Depression: three performances, April 17 and 18. 


A song-and-dance jaunt into Mowgli's jungle and a musical Paradise, plus a week's worth of good reading.
Angela Niederloh as Julia Child in Lee Hoiby’s “Bon Appetit!” – one of four short comic operas in An American Quartet. Photo: Kate Szrom/Portland Opera 


FROM JAZZ TO MINIMALISM TO INDIA AND BACK. Brett Campbell on the varied talents and influences of contemporary classical pioneer Terry Riley, who showed up, perhaps surprisingly, at the PDX Jazz Festival.

BREATHING FRESH AIR. “Witty, short, well performed, utterly charming, and for once the spotlight shone on American opera composers”: Angela Allen on why Portland Opera’s An American Quartet was a sold-out hit.

THERE IS A VALUE IN SIMPLE THINGS. Matthew Neil Andrews talks with musical “triple threat” Caroline Shaw, who’ll perform next week with Third Angle New Music in the premiere of her string quartet The Evergreen and other of her compositions.

STORMING VIKING PAVILION. On March 1, Brett Campbell writes, Portland State University choral director Ethan Sperry is bringing choral music’s first “rock star,” Eric Whitacre, to the campus to conduct his own music and a 500-voice choir.



COAST CALENDAR: THE LIGHT SHINES ON YOUTH. Young filmmakers, stories inspired by Cinderella and Dr. Suess, and a documentary about Anne Frank skew the week young, Lori Tobias writes.

FISHERS OF POETRY. This is the weekend of the 23rd annual FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, and Lori Tobias has the lowdown on the rhythm and rhyme.

MUSIC, POETRY, AND VISUAL ART, ALL WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE. Steampunk in Salem, new art shows in Newberg, a little bit of everything at Linfield College in McMinnville: David Bates scopes the cultural action in wine country.


DANCEWATCH MONTHLY: FEBRUARY IS ALL ABOUT LOVE. Love that extra day, for instance, which adds another Saturday night to February’s offerings. Jamuna Chiarini suggests several, from White Bird’s Cirque Alfonse to a Funeral for Expectations.


DRAMAWATCH: ‘INDECENT’ PROPOSAL. Two women, in love – kissing, even! Marty Hughley looks at the theatrical attractions of Paul Vogel’s Indecent, in an Artists Rep/Profile co-production, and other stage highlights.

CUDDLES AT COHO. Bennett Campbell Ferguson curls up with the comforts of Dominic Finocchiaro’s The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, “which I can safely say is the first play I’ve seen about a professional cuddler.”

FERTILE GROUND 1: VORTEX AND MORE. Jae Carlsson begins a four-episode look back on Portland’s sprawling festival of new performance. A musical about Tom McCall and his unlikely 1970 rock festival is a highlight. The Roosevelts and Martin Luther King Jr. show up, too.

FERTILE GROUND 2: ‘DOROTHY’S DICTIONARY,’ ETC. In Part 2 of his look back on Portland’s new-performance festival, Jae Carlsson considers E.M. Lewis’s newest play and others facing the question of “talking it thru.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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