Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2007.
“Now listen and attend!”
“BEFORE the High and Far-Off Times, O my Best Beloved, came the Time of the Very Beginnings; and that was in the days when the Eldest Magician was getting Things ready. First he got the Earth ready; then he got the Sea ready; and then he told all the Animals that they could come out and play. And the Animals said, 'O Eldest Magician, what shall we play at?' and he said, 'I will show you.”
– Rudyard Kipling
Thus begins “Just So,” a musical by the British team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe(“Honk!”, “Mary Poppins”) based on Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” which is being given a lively and entertaining production by St. John’s Players.
Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), was an Englishman born in Bombay, India. He was a prolific and very popular author of poetry and fiction for both adults and children. In 1907 he became the first English language writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, and to this day he remains its youngest-ever recipient. He repeatedly refused the offer of a knighthood.
In January of 1892 he married an American and they moved to Vermont, first renting a small cottage on a farm near Brattleboro, where their first child, Josephine, was born just twenty days shy of her parents’ first anniversary. Needing larger quarters, Kipling built a house which he christened "Naulakha" which still stands on Kipling Road, in Dummerston, and is owned and operated by the British Landmark Trust as a bed and breakfast. There Kipling wrote the beloved “Jungle Books” (1894 & 1895) and there his daughter Elsie was born in 1896. The couple’s only son, John aka Jack, was born the following year. Only Elsie lived to adulthood.
Political strife between Great Britain and the United States caused the Kiplings to leave America in 1897. The following year the family commenced their annual travels from Britain to South Africa. On the voyages Kipling amused his children with fanciful tales not only about the interesting animals they saw on their travels, but also about animals he had known in his native India and on other travels to the antipodes and South America.
During a trip to America in 1899, Josephine died of pneumonia at the age of seven, and in 1902 Kipling published the “Just So Stories” (Josephine had refused to allow any variations on the originals and always insisted he tell the stories “Just so”) illustrated with his own woodcuts. There is no doubt that Josephine is the Best Beloved to whom the stories are addressed.
Stiles and Drewe spent the better part of twenty years (1984-2004) polishing “Just So,” which weaves five of Kipling’s twelve tales into something passing for a plot, to craft it into the show you see at St. John’s. Using the Elephant’s Child “who was full of 'satiable curiosity” as the protagonist and the Kolokolo Bird as her companion, the show become a “road trip” through bits and pieces (some larger than others) of “How the Rhinoceros got its Skin,” “How the Leopard got his Spots,” “The Elephant's Child,” “The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo,” and (one of my favorites) “The Crab that Played with the Sea.”
“Just So Story” purists have probably already noticed that I referred to the Elephant’s Child as a “she” in the previous paragraph because in the St. John’s Players’ production the role is played by a woman (Sarah Plante), as is the Kolokolo Bird (Sarah Simon, who is also the show’s director.) This makes for a cheerful Lucy-and-Ethel bantering and bickering camaraderie as they travel from the high veldt to the mouth of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees,. It seems that, as he goes in and out of his undersea abode, Pau Amma (Chad Columbus), the crab, has been causing tsunami–style floods twice a day which upsets all of the animals.
And now, Gail’s First Major Quibble with Stiles’and Drewe’s Concept: This whole show apparently takes place in Africa, but the stories take place on three continents: Africa, Asia (India), and South America, as well in various never-lands of Kipling’s own imagination. The most alarming manifestation of plopping everyone onto the Dark Continent is the teaming up of the Jaguar (Dylan Waterhouse) and the Leopard (Matthew Tucker). Any second grader in the cast or the audience could tell you that leopards and jaguars don’t live on the same continent! Yet here they are, happily tracking the Zebra (Mickey Crews) and Giraffe (Lauren Skiffington, who also provided the lively choreography) together.
Which leads us to Gail’s Second Major Quibble with Stiles’ and Drewe’s Concept: They have taken all the humans out of the stories, with the exception of the Eldest Magician (Mollie Simon) and the Parsee Man (Matthew Tucker again). In “How the Leopard Got His Spots” it is an Ethiopian man who hunts with the leopard. In “The Crab Who Played with the Sea” it is a father and his young daughter who help the Eldest Magician solve the mystery of why the land is flooded daily, and it is that Girl Child who suggests turning the task over to the moon once Pau Amma is defeated. Humans, particularly little girls are an important part of Kipling’s tales, and I missed them. I told one friend that I had been to see a musical based on the “Just So Stories” and he immediately asked “Is Taffy in it?” That was my first question too. Where’s Taffy? – the heroine of “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was Made.” I really was excited, during my childhood of androcentric Doctor-Dan-and-Nurse-Nancy storytelling, to read about a young GIRL who created important things like the first letter.
But here we have women directing, choreographing, and playing all the leading roles. So even if Taffy (short for Taffimai Metallumai which means small-person-without-any-manners-who-ought-to-be-spanked”) is no where to be found, St. John’s Players have remained true to Kipling’s interest in showing women and girls as active and creative creatures, capable of, literally, changing the world.
Mollie Simon assumes command immediately as the Eldest Magician, dressed in an interesting mélange of ethnic clothing topped off by a swirling cape-of-many-colors and a. handsome magic staff Sheri Simon and Terry Viviori are responsible for the costumes, and they did not make an attempt, nor did Stiles & Drewes intend any to be made, to make the actors actually look like the animals they are playing. If you go to the Stiles and Drewe “Just So” Web site you can see photos of the creative costuming various professional productions have used. Frankly, I think the St. John’s Players, with limited resources, has done a fine and inventive job turning themselves into elephants and rhinos and zebras and giraffes and crocodiles and crabs and cook-stoves. Who knew that stuffing balloons in the sides of the thighs of ordinary cotton/Lycra slacks made you look just like a Kangaroo??
Actually, both the best costume (Jillian Marchegiani as the Cook-stove, of the kind that you must particularly never touch) and the most perplexing one (Tucker as the Parsee Man) occur in “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin”, which is divided into two sections – one in the first act and one in the second, and are definitely highlights of the show. I don’t know whether that Cook-stove costume was home-made, rented, or purchased, but Marchegiani really looked like she had just strolled over from Central Radio to check out the Open Studios and been promptly recruited by a passing St. John’s Player. Tucker, who has a lusty singing voice and turns in solid and hilarious performances as both the Parsee Man and the Leopard, is inexplicably, but most humorously, dressed as a Rastafarian. It only took one Google search to learn that Parsees are Zoroastrians who fled from Persia to India in the 8th century CE and now live primarily in the former Bombay state, where Kipling was born and raised. He knew what a Parsee man looked like and drew him clearly. He did not have dreadlocks.
But if you overlook yet another cross continental faux pas, Tucker and Dave Costa as the Rhinoceros (who had no manners then, and has no manners now, and never will have any manners) make for side-splitting comedy as they team up with the Cook-stove, the Elephant’s Child, the Kolokolo Bird, and a chorus of adorable dancing shrimp (many energetic young girls – Kyra Batease, Julia Cellana, Tanelle Ciempa, Laura Corsi, Lexie Federchen, Emma Gregory, Hanna Koczela, Naomi Parsons, and Ayla Senecal - in bubble-gum pink with little chef’s hats) for a trio of lively tunes – “Living on this Island,” “Thick Skin” and “The Parsee Cake Cake-Walk” – during Act I, scene III. I forget how the Elephant’s Child and the Kolokolo bird managed to sail out to the Parsee Man’s uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea when they hadn’t even found the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, but never mind. It turned out to be one of their more satisfying adventures.
While I enjoyed Plante and Sarah Simon’s performances and the well-played relationship between their characters, I found the roles rather too similar as written. I could have used one or two additional companions for their journey, but that might have made the whole thing too Wizard-of-Oz-y. (By the way, Sarah Simon is my second favorite Cowardly Lion of all time, after Bert Lahr. And next month the Drury Drama Team will be presenting their delightful stage version of the MGM film once again.)
While Tucker (sans dreadlocks) and Waterhouse are adequately predatory predators, Crews and Skiffington are well worth pursuing as their prey. It has been very interesting to watch Skiffington develop as an actress. While I was critical (hey, I’m a critic) of some of her high school performances, she has developed over the past few years into a very attractive and interesting actress. Now I would gladly plunk down a large sum of money to see her tackle Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors” once again. Here she is a sinuous and leggy Giraffe, replete with vividly yellow tights and towering high heeled black patent leather books. Crews, who I deem legitimately British (which makes her a ZEB-rah, not a ZEE-bruh) is Skiffington’s perfect foil. Short and pleasingly round in all the right places, she keeps up smartly with Skiffington’s bubble-headed and flirtatious Giraffe. I also got a big kick out of Ciempa, Francesca Casuscelli, and Gregory and hopeless herd-minded Wildebeests. I wish Stiles and Drewe had given them more to do.
At the end of Act I we finally meet the arch-enemy, Pau Ammawhen he refuses to listen to the Elephant’s Chil’s plea to stop playing with the sea. Remember that in the high and far-off times, Best Beloved, Pau Amma was “Not a common Crab, but a King Crab. One side of his great shell touched the beach at Sarawak; the other touched the beach at Pahang; and he was taller than the smoke of three volcanoes!” This enormity is cleverly suggested by crab claws so long they take a stage hand a piece to operate them. Unfortunately Columbus doesn’t quite muster that size and power in his line readings. But when he is defeated he melts to nothing more that a head and two hands peeping over the top of the highest platform. With absolutely no fancy costumes, lights or special effects, Pau Amma is reduced to believable little crab who ultimately scuttles off to the sea in shame.
A much reprised song in the show is “Limpopo River.” The Limpopo River runs from just south of the South African capital of Praetoria, northward along that country’s boundaries with Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, to the Indian Ocean opposite the southern tip of Madagascar. Since I grew up next to the great grey-green greasy East River on the east side of Manhattan, a river I firmly believe is the grey-green greasiest of all, I have always felt an affinity for the Elephant’s Child’s journey and I thoroughly enjoyed that song.
The major adventure in Act II is a jarring mis-rendering of “The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo.” Did Stiles and Drewe not see the word(s) “Sing-Song” in the title? This is a story with rhythm and lilt built right in. But they have stripped that out and replaced it with their own poor effort, which places the focus on the kangaroo and completely eliminates the wonderful “Still ran Dingo--Yellow-Dog Dingo…” refrain. None the less, Kaitlyn Lavalley does a noble job of singing and speaking clearly while hopping and hopping and hopping, having balloons inserted and removed from her pants legs with every pass backstage, as Yellow Dog Dingo (Susan Bloom) pursues her. Just as Dingo collapsed of exhaustion, Bloom, from a prone position let loose an amazing singing voice at the conclusion of “Leaps and Bounds.” Give that girl a bigger part!
The Set, designed and built by Glenn A Rutan, Bill Barlow, and producer Sheri Simon (mother to Mollie and Sarah), neatly turns the Upper Room of St. John’s Parish House into the jungle while leaving enough space for all the elephants, wildebeests, shrimp and wallabies. Waterhouse and Trevor Flagg have done a fine job creating a number of different effects with their limited lighting resources. Most notably in the Act I number “Jungle Light.”
Musical director and keyboardist Lee Warren Rutan leads an able four-piece ensemble consisting of Stephen Sanborn on reeds, Matthew Moulton on various guitars, and Dave Fierro playing the percussion instruments. Assistant Musical Director Dee Dee Smith leads an adult chorus – Rick Casuscelli, Deborah Federchen, Norma Jean Marchegiani, Sheri Simon, and various older members of the cast when they are not on stage, which sits with the musicians and lends vocal support to every number.
I understand that nowadays parents don’t read the “Just So Stories” to their children because they are not “politically correct.” Darned if I could remember anything unseemly about them, but sure enough, while re-reading “How the Leopard got his Spots” I spotted the “N” Word. But it was spoken by the Ethiopian in reference to himself, a practice that is still used in various black communities. What I remembered about that story was how much I loved to hear and say the words Ethiopian and Ethiopia, which I still consider among the most mellifluous words ever invented.
Whatever 19th century racist and imperialist jargon Kipling may have put in, Stiles and Drewe have been thorough in their efforts to make their show as inoffensive as possible. Twenty-first century families need have no fear of attending this thoroughly kid-friendly show, which, I am happy to say, still retains large chunks of Kipling’s wonderful prose.
Despite my quibbles, (remember, my younger son has proclaimed me to be “way over-prepared and a hopeless purist” whenever I enter a theatre), this really is a tuneful and engaging show being given an inventive and charming production by this hard-working and ambitious community theatre. I hope that the children involved and the children who come and see the show ask, nay, force their parents to get the book out of the library or buy it new from Amazon or used from ABE Books (I highly recommend the original with Kipling’s own woodcut illustrations, or the 1952 edition illustrated by Nicolas Mordvinoff that I grew up with. It has been reprinted at least twice, so I’m not the only one who likes it.) and READ IT TO THEM!!! An attractive electronic version of the stories with Kipling’s woodcuats is available free HERE. The raw, unillustrated text is also available for free at Project Gutenberg. I bet your child(ren) will be happy to create unique and elaborate illustrations.
If a politically correct parent came to a word they didn’t like, and they are few and far between, they can always substitute something they consider suitable. Or, if the child is old enough, they could actually use the reading-aloud time as an opportunity to teach about how attitudes and language have changed over the last century. Learning from the past – what a concept!
The St. John's Players production of Just So will be performed October 12, 13, 19 & 20 at 7 p.m. and October 14 & 21 at 3 p.m. at St. John's Episcopal Church, 59 Summer St., North Adams, MA. Tickets $7 adults, $5 seniors and children (family rates available). The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For reservations and information please call the box office at 413-663-7879
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007