Book by Timothy Allen McDonald. Words and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Based on the book by Roald Dahl. Directed by Carole Higgins. At the Waterfront Theatre on Sunday, December 7. Continues until January 4
Based on my seven-year-old’s reaction to James and the Giant Peach—“I want more!”—Carousel Theatre has a hit on its hands.
The hero of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book is James, a young boy who is sent to live with his nasty aunts, Spiker and Sponge, after his parents’ untimely demise. The aunts’ unspeakable cruelty is relieved after James encounters a strange old man who offers him a bag full of magic. James accidentally spills his magical potion on the ground under a peach tree, which produces an enormous fruit inhabited by human-sized insects. They befriend James, and their adventures become the boy’s ticket to self-esteem and a sense of belonging.
Playwright Timothy Allen McDonald has sharpened the story’s conflicts. Dahl dispatches the mean aunts fairly early, for example; but these villains are theatrical gold, so McDonald keeps them around for most of the play. And in this version, the Centipede is not just a pest; he’s a bigot, mistrusting all humans, including James. While Dahl purists might sniff at the changes, they keep the show clipping along.
The songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, alternate between buoyant, energetic ensemble numbers and wistful ballads for the title character. As James, 11-year-old Julian Lokash is almost never off-stage. His performance is grounded and open-hearted, and his sweet, angelic voice is perfect for his introspective songs.
Director Carole Higgins deserves huge credit for the rest of the casting as well: as Spiker and Sponge, Patti Allan and Deborah Williams gleefully chew the scenery—and they’re not even insects! Among the arthropods, Scott Bellis makes the Centipede’s every gesture comically riveting, Kaylee Harwood puts on Ladybug’s airs with poise and precision, and Jonathan Winsby delivers an endearingly fatalistic Earthworm. When these characters—along with Alex Rose’s Grasshopper and Makayla Moore’s Spider—lift their voices together to comfort James in “Everywhere That You Are”, they make musical magic.
They can dance, too, and choreographer Kayla Dunbar uses the many legs on-stage to great effect. Al Frisk’s set and Heidi Wilkinson’s props offer lots of surprises in presenting the peach’s travels. Barbara Clayden’s costumes are exquisitely detailed, playful, and colourful, and Gerald King’s sumptuous lighting heightens the sense of adventure. Musical director Steven Greenfield leads a terrific three-piece band.
James and the Giant Peach is built to please kids (six and up) and the parents and grandparents who grew up reading the book. What more could you want for the holidays?