There’s something so magical and timeless about Roald Dahl’s stories. He was completely unafraid in testing the limits of a child’s imagination and taking readers — of all ages — to places they least expected. One of his best known stories, “James and the Giant Peach”, had its opening at the Young People’s Theatre on November 27, with Broadway songwriting pros Benj Pasek and Justin Paul helming the music and words, book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Sue Miner directing.
James Henry Trotter (Alessandro Costantini) is an orphan (his parents were eaten by a runaway rhinoceros) who’s just learned he has living family who’ll take him in, Spiker (Nicole Robert) and Sponge (Karen Wood). Although he misses his parents terribly, he’s happy to be moving to Dover and within sight of where he grew up…except, as in any Roald Dahl, story, things don’t work out quite as simply as that. His aunts are terrible and mean, taking James into their home only because they’re getting paid to and see the boy as free labour.
The aunts’ first task for James is to cut down the dying peach tree on their property. A mysterious man (Dale Miller), who knows James’s name and all about him, offers a secret potion that’ll give James fantastical powers; before he gets a chance to use it on himself, he trips and spills the potion by the peach tree, causing an enormous peach to grow. Upon finding the ever-growing peach, his aunts cackle with excitement at all the riches it’ll bring them and James, wandering into the peach, discovers a group of bugs that’ll become his new family.
There’s a regal Ladybug (Lana Carillo), ready-to-the-rescue Spider (Saccha Denis), afraid-of-everything Earthworm (Jacob MacInnis), a prickly Centipede (Dale Miller) and a wise Grasshopper (Stewart Adam McKensy), a quintet who’ve sought each other’s company after feeling ostracized in their own respective ways. The one thing everyone has in common is an intense dislike for Spiker and Sponge and they hatch a plan to escape, rolling the peach over hill and dale, across the English Channel and all the way over the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.
The Young People’s Theatre “James and the Giant Peach” starts to veer away from the book form when the sextet escape in the peach, with a more kid-friendly version shown (e.g. the aunts are merely rolled over instead of permanently splattered), although it keeps some elements intact, like roping down seagulls to float above the water. And obviously, the songs and dances don’t exist in the book, but Pasek and Paul manage to pull it off quite well. They’re aided by musical director Jason Jestadt and choreographer Jen Shuber, both of whom get the cast to skillfully navigate set designer Yannick Larivée’s giant peach.
While the songs are quite catchy and capture Dahl’s themes fittingly, the actors don’t always pull them off to the greatest extent. Costantini as James takes a bit of time to settle into his role, with his voice gaining in strength as the play goes on. The quintet of bugs don’t always sound like a one-voice choir, with some voices almost disappearing at times and others not blending in sufficiently. Robert and Wood as Spiker and Sponge, respectively, buck the trend by harmonizing nicely and still maintaining a delicious edge of family-friendly evil, adding a bit of humanity to their oversized personalities. Bonus points go to costume designer Robin Fisher for making the aunts, as well as the other characters, so spot on. Last but not least, the group of musicians tucked away in the corner (Nick Coulter on percussion and Patrick Kilbride on bass) helped tighten up any loose seams with strong playing that was subtle and on-key without being overly visible or noticeable.
It was a pretty good production of “James and the Giant Peach”, with MacInnis as Centipede particularly standing out. He was so roly-poly and timid that when he finally stepped out of his shadow, it was a stand up and cheer moment. Costantini was a bit of a puzzling choice; in the book, James is 4-years-old but the actor’s portrayal of him seemed twice older, at the very least. That aside, if Young People’s Theatre could find actors with stronger singing voices, it’d definitely be a show to write home about.
“James and the Giant Peach” runs through January 4 on the Mainstage with extra performances added by demand. For more information and tickets, visit the Young People’s Theatre website.