Benton Heights to present kids’ version of Broadway show

MONROE – The Benton Heights Elementary School of the Arts auditorium stage will soon be swarming with monkeys, elephants, a loveable bear, sly snake, wise panther, vicious tiger and one lost little boy as the school eagerly presents “Disney’s The Jungle Book KIDS.”

The production takes place Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 9:30 a.m., and Thursday and Friday, Nov. 29 and 30, at 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. The morning shows are for students while the evening presentations are open to the public. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the door. Children age 12 and under and Union County Public Schools employees get in for free.

This is the second time Benton Heights has put on the stage play. Seven years ago, the school chose “The Jungle Book KIDS” as its first major production and, as the school celebrates its 100th anniversary, everyone thought it was the perfect time for a throwback to years past.

“That was our original opening Broadway show ever seven years ago. Due to the fact it’s our 100th, we decided to return to it,” arts coordinator Frank Casstevens said.

Much like the well-known animated Disney film, “The Jungle Book KIDS” tells the story of Mowgli, the little abandoned boy who meets an unlikely pair of friends – Bagheera the Panther and Baloo the Bear – who help him survive a harsh life in the jungle.

Along the way, they meet the mischievous King Louie of the Apes, the sneaky Kaa the Snake and the most dangerous villain of them all – Shere Khan the Tiger.

The play runs about 40 minutes and is a reimagined adaptation of the original Broadway “Jungle Book” show, as it’s specifically designed for children. The length of the play, dialogue, dance routines and vocal arrangements were created to accommodate elementary-aged children.

Back in August, the school held auditions that were open to third-, forth- and fifth-graders. Once the 40-something cast members were selected, rehearsals began. For the past two months, students gathered together on Mondays and Thursdays from 2 to 4 p.m. to practice their lines, work on their vocals and learn the dance routines.

Then, starting two weeks prior to the show, the school began holding rehearsals four afternoons during the week. Monday, Nov. 26, is an all-day rehearsal, and the kids get Tuesday off from practice to rest up for Wednesday’s show.

Those cast in the show aren’t the only ones who have been working diligently to bring the production to fruition. The school’s art club has put time and effort into creating the backdrops for the scenery, painting free-handed images to create a jungle atmosphere.

“We recognize them as part of production, which also helps us involve more students,” Casstevens said. “Others step in from computer tech, media tech and P.E. They’ve been great to support our team.”

Other faculty and parents have pitched in to make costumes. Rather than forking out money to rent or purchase
costumes, nearly all of the costumes are homemade, consisting of materials like felt, synthetic fur and hosiery. The students use green netting to facilitate Kaa the Snake, who is played by multiple children.

“We utilize a lot of simple ideas,” Casstevens said. “They’re sewn and created by faculty and staff. We felt that that would give the children the authenticity that was needed but also keep it child related and child friendly.”

Benton Heights does a Broadway production annually and has put on shows like “Mulan” and “Aladdin” in the past. Typically the Broadway shows are done in the spring, but the school chose to host this year’s presentation in the fall.

“We took a look at scheduling. There are things constantly going on in the spring – a need for tutoring, EOGs, testing,” Casstevens said. “We just feel like we are in a better place in time and a better period (if we) stay away from those.”

Casstevens said rehearsals have gone well and he’s looking forward to presenting the show to the community.

“I think it’s just a matter of it being a very-well known and certainly a well-loved classic that so many children and adults will really appreciate. It’s a very enchanting work,” he said. “We certainly hope to have a packed house for the Thursday and Friday evening shows.”

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