James and the Giant Peach

James and the Giant Peach, based on the book by Roald Dahl, Boston Children’s Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 3/17/12-3/25/12, http://bostonchildrenstheatre.org/season/jamesandthegiantpeach/.

Reviewed by John Herring

(Boston, MA) James and the Giant Peach follows a young orphan boy and the charming crew of insects he befriends on an entertaining and hilarious trans-Atlantic journey aboard a gigantic piece of fruit.” If you have read the story, or have been read the story, you know and probably love it already. If not, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN HIDING?! And you also will love the story in full live presentation.

When I saw the production, they were still working the bugs out.

Yes, I said it. And on purpose. But how could I not?

The very young target audience of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH will not appreciate the work Richard George put into making the emotionally complex story of a boy, his family, and his friends accessible for them.  They will, however, appreciate the effect of the characters presented in this dramatization of one of Roald Dahl’s most enduring stories. Dahl’s themes of food, shelter, family and friends are well represented. To be sure, the very brief play will seem a bit truncated to adults used to longer, meatier productions. But remember, the desired demographic for this show has barely begun going to school or preschool. To them, it SHOULD last just long enough to capture their attention and hold it.

The young cast is a true ensemble, ranging in age from ages 10 to 28, and coming out of no less than 11 different communities from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but everyone appears to have been placed in just the right role. James and the Giant Peach’s producer and directors have taken a relatively (in some cases very) inexperienced performers and created a very viable ensemble, making good use of George’s intentionally limited character depth.  The directors, Jay Pension and Ryan Began, keep things moving along at a pace that will not leave anyone behind.

Ben Henry-Moreland’s rather serious Narrator moves the story along where the original story would slow the work of the stage.

The aunties, Sponge and Spiker, might be having the most fun in the show. William Goldstein and Alex Aroyan put on the incredibly tall wigs and put on the camp, hitting a strident plateau early on and holding it until their final exit. Might be overdone from the start, and you might find them gratingly, annoyingly, selfishly mean, but not so darkly, sadistically mean as Dahl drew them.

Alec Shiman’s James is endearingly diffident through most of the first act. Identifiable, meek, genuine, lovable. And focused. After the peach sets sail, and then as its journey culminates in the very brief and plot-thick second act, James seems to grow tenfold.

Dawn Testa’s costuming is usually representational, rather than literal, except in the case of the centipede. Ten legs. Seriously. And Justin Hynes’ Centipede might be the most well-developed physical character in the show. But really, how could it not be. Ten legs!

Justin also will often be the leader of all onstage energy. As the Ladybug, young Alexa Niziak works a bit of ingenue magic. One cannot help being won by her open charm. Along with Conrad Krendel-Clark’s avuncular and always correct Old Grasshopper, Blaine Stevens’ doting Spider, Katie Roeder’s diffident and self-effacing Glow-worm (who I will predict gets a good laugh from the under-7  group, trying turn on her posterior light) and Nolan Murphy’s slightly paranoid and blind Earthworm, our insect friends create a fertile and supportive, though not always willing, landscape for James’ transformation from oppressed slave into the loyal and strong Spartacus we all want him to be.

My vote for the unsung cast members are the deceptively simple integrated set and lighting designs by Janie Howland and Ben Williams. Creating a nine-foot-tall peach and finding a way to set and strike it in less than 10 seconds, multiple times, is a nice trick. Bringing us the world outside the edges of the stage is an even nicer one. To that end, our crew makes wonderful use of rear projection effects and lighting to tell “the rest of the story”.

Every show has a purpose, or a moral. With this one, the right set of friends or family means the least of us might become the greatest. Go see how.

Good luck getting tickets! Many show dates and times are happily sold out, as are the private weekday performances they will offer for local schools.  However, as James teaches us: if you really want something, do not give up.

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