With a cast of nearly 60 Summit County performers, the Breckenridge Backstage Theatre’s presentation of “The Jungle Book” puts the community in community theater. But the musical doesn’t just feature local talent on stage — both the script and music are homegrown works.
While the show is an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling classic, the theater’s artistic director, Christopher Willard, created the show in collaboration with Arvada Center musical director Keith Ewer, Henry Award winner Donna Debreceni and Backstage veteran actor Cory Wendling.
“Chris wrote this with a lot of characters in mind as we went through it, a lot of these animals were created specifically for the actors that play them,” said Mark Lineaweaver, executive director of the Backstage. “That’s a super cool opportunity and something you don’t get to do too often. … We have so much incredible talent in this community.”
The cast features a mix of talented Summit County kids with professional actors who have also been featured in previous Backstage productions. Wendling, who helped write the music, also plays Shere Khan and is a regular at the Backstage Theatre, having performed in “Avenue Q,” “Spamalot,” “Easy Living” and “Hidden.” Nina Waters, who plays Bagheera, was featured in Lake Dillon Theatre Company’s “Big River” and “1940s Radio Hour.” The young, talented Brody Lineaweaver, from “Shrek” and “A Christmas Story,” plays Mowgli, a human boy raised in the jungle by wolves. A gaggle of Summit County parents and their kids — ones reared in the mountains by humans and not apex predators — round out the cast, playing elephants, jackals, monkeys and villagers.
“The more families we can bring together onstage we do,” Willard said.
Mark Lineaweaver said they wanted to incorporate as many young, talented community members as possible.
“When you mesh that level of professional talent with the up-and-coming youth talent and give them a taste of what a real Broadway theater production is like, it’s cool for the community to see, cool for the kids to mature and fall in love with it, and to see them come back year after year,” he said.
Willard said the theater’s version stays true to Kipling’s darker tale while being conscious of the fact the musical is intended as family entertainment. The essence of the story, Willard said, is about Mowgli’s coming of age; it’s about a boy trying to find his place in the world.
For those more familiar with the Disney version of “The Jungle Book,” there is still the same dramatis personae. But don’t expect a jazzy rendition of “The Bare Necessities.”
Willard said he likes to tell the famous story of Walt Disney hiring a screen writer to transform Kipling’s books into a screen play back in the ’50s. The first draft that was submitted to Disney was very true to Kipling and also very dark. Disney fired the writer. When he had a meeting with the new screen writer, he famously handed him the book and said, “The first thing I want you to do is not to read this.”
“It’s true that the books are rather dark, but there’s still such great iconic characters like Mowgli and Baloo and Bagheera … and you want to see those characters interact,” Willard said. “They’re going to still see that great bond that exists between Baloo and Mowgli, a bear and his boy, and recognize the character of Kaa, the funny but a little scary snake … They are able to take a journey to experience what it might be like if a human is raised in the jungle. Get a little bit of wildness in their life.”
Wendling, who plays Shere Khan, the musical’s big bad, said audiences will be able to relate to the story.
“Very little of this is done for strictly public appeal, there’s a darker side and there’s more of a human struggle,” he said. “The themes that are evident in the show are more relatable than a Disney product.”
Willard emphasized the show isn’t children’s theater, but is geared toward both adults and kids. “We’ve been doing that for quite some time in our theater, so we have a good handle on what’s accessible for all ages.”
The production’s music was written to reflect the attributes of the characters. Everything has a tinge of Indian flavor, Willard said, but there is also a lot of other influential music. They looked at “Lion King” as a blueprint, and tailored the songs to the individual characters performing them. The monkeys are tied to a funk beat, while the elephants stomp to marching songs and big anthems. “We tried to listen to the characters, and let the characters dictate the style,” he said.
This is the last show of the season for the Backstage Theatre, held at the Riverwalk Center Amphitheater in Breckenridge, as the theater is currently undergoing extensive renovations at its home location. The show opened Friday, Aug. 28, and continues throughout the weekend, with a performance on Saturday, Aug. 29 and Sunday, Aug. 30. The show continues into September with performances Sept. 3-7, at 7 p.m.