For the second show of its current season, and the first back on its home base on North First Street, Valley Youth Theatre premiered a new musical version of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, the story of a young boy, his insect friends, and, just as it says in the title, a freaky, oversized peach.
Unlike the book, which, true to Roald Dahl’s style, has a macabre and occasionally bleak Dickensian manner to its beginning, in the musical when we first meet young James Henry Trotter (a perfectly appropriate Owen Watson with a nice accent) he’s already an orphan and he’s wondering what his future life might be. With no parents and no immediate family to speak of, the orphanage locates two of James’ aunts who live together in Dover down by the English Channel, and it’s there where everything changes for the little English boy.
As evidenced in his other works, author Dahl’s style often employed somewhat dark and often frightening instances in his stories. He had a knack for tapping into a child’s worst fear then creating an adventure out of it. Parents didn’t always get it. It’s as if they’d forgotten what can happen in a child’s mind. But Dahl knew, and even though some of what made up his stories may have seemed to push the envelope on surreal, scary stuff, when it came to a child’s point of view, he got things exactly right.
The frightening elements that make up James’ story is mostly gone from the musical, but the essence of Dahl’s plot and the adventures in that giant peach are all there. James is forced to live with his aunts by the sea who not only possess the oddest of names but turn out to be the most despicable two people in Dover.
Spiker (Addison Bowman) and Sponge (Haley Hanni) are two of the most selfish, greedy and repulsive characters in the south of England, and they’re not exactly overjoyed with the prospect of having to look after a little boy, until, that is, they discover they’ll earn twenty-seven pounds a week for their efforts. “Welcome to the family, moron!” declares Sponge. Addison and Haley play the ladies with an intentional, over-the-top, arm-waving broadness. Played any other way, their malicious and never ending cruelty would be too much, but the comic tone they deliver in this handsome looking production makes them considerably more palatable. It’s as if they jumped off the pages of a strip cartoon and found themselves in the real world and have no clue how to blend in.
Throughout the show we’re treated to a character called Ladahlord (Clark Shaeffer) who here acts as a kind of Master of Ceremonies. He’s not exactly a narrator, but when he appears he becomes the glue that holds the story together. In the book he’s simply The Old Man, but in the show, Ladahlord continually drops by, pointing out things we’re about to witness right before our eyes. Clark is a welcoming presence who, like his character, gives the comforting impression that no matter what disaster is about to unfold for the innocent young James, it’s going to be all right in the end.
The effect of traveling across the ocean inside a giant peach is done well. Once the fruit near the sea magically grows in size, James crawls inside to escape the taunts of his horrible relatives and finds himself surrounded by five insects who, just like the peach, have increased in height to the point where every one now towers over James. These are the new adults in his life, and even though Centipede (the always reliable Connor Baker) is not exactly the friendliest of insects, the others – Ladybug (Isabella Conner), Grasshopper (Nathan Franzke), Earthworm (Sam Primack) and Glow Worm (Avery Strachan) – take to James as they float their way across the English Channel together in their makeshift, edible raft and out into the Atlantic towards New York.
There are other players who make up a surprisingly large ensemble and it’s during the opening number where we get to meet them. Lead by our evening’s MC, the cast introduce themselves to us in a well-staged and nicely choreographed opener reminiscent in content of a mix between Pippin’s Magic To Do and Sondheim’s Comedy Tonight. The new score from Benj Paek and Justin Paul is full of pleasant, upbeat numbers that here appear to work better in the quieter solo moments rather than when the whole cast join in. James’ haunting On Your Way Home sung by Owen from his orphanage bed sets the tone for both his wants and desires, and when Isabella’s Ladybug soothes a worried James by beginning an ensemble song as an introductory solo, the moment and Isabella’s voice is both as sweet and as comforting for us as it is to the little boy.
The opening night production was marred by some technical difficulties with sound and mics – all easily fixable for future performances – plus a few of the scene transitions left audiences occasionally sitting in the dark for periods longer than normally expected. The recorded music – here very effective and never in danger of drowning the cast – plays as scenes change from one to another so that we’re never left in silence, but the production falters by having some of those moments feel as though we’re really watching a good final rehearsal rather than the finished production.
Daniel Davisson’s lighting design coupled with Karol Coopers delightful costumes give the production a healthy, colorful glow throughout. Director Bobb Cooper, who here doubles as choreographer, has a well established knack for fleshing out the best in young performers, and even though there’s a tendency for some to shout their lines rather than project, his Valley Youth cast delivers. Plus, music director Rebecca Joslin brings out the best in all the young voices, as evidenced in the two above-mentioned examples.
With a running time of seventy minutes, plus intermission, James and the Giant Peach never overstays its welcome, and true to its Roald Dahl origins, inspires the imagination to look beyond what we see before our eyes. And if this happens to be the first live production your child has ever seen on the VYT stage, they’ll be transfixed.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the VYT website.