Carousel Theatre’s “James and the Giant Peach” shows off some of the company’s best work in this adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl book with something for kids and grown-ups alike.
Dahl’s stories are well-known for mixing whimsical humour with some very dark themes. Dahl didn’t pull any punches, and his stories touch on some of the deepest fears of childhood such as losing one’s parents… or being irreversibly turned into a mouse. (I still recall how the fine and otherwise faithful film of The Witches, with Rowan Atkinson and Angelica Huston, still softened up the touching but rather melancholy final twist of that story.)
Which brings us to the stage version of “James and the Giant Peach”. Timothy Allen McDonald compresses the original tale and lightens the darkest edges, but retains most of its spirit. The Roald Dahl touch is evident right off the top, as young James’ parents are eaten by a rhino (visualized in a way that will hopefully generate laughter, not nightmares, in younger audience members!) and James is forced to live with two wretched aunts, Sponge and Spiker, who treat him as a slave in exchange for the small allowance they are paid for his care.
The aunts are played with scenery-chewing gusto by Deb Williams and Patti Allan and are standouts among a very fine cast. Many of their scenes are played up the staircase at the side of the Waterfront, to excellent effect. (On opening night, it became clear why the composers in attenance, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, had been seated where directly in front of that spot – they became collateral targets of Sponge and Spiker’s gleeful shenanigans!)
The sets by Al Frisk are meticulous and delightful, and puppets by Annett Mateo of the Seattle Children’s Theatre, operated by black-clad, in-plain-sight puppeteers, add a surreal quality.
The cast bring great variety and inventiveness to their roles as the Earthwork, Grasshopper, Ladybug, Spider and Centipede who, tranformed into human form by some magic beans (there are always magic beans, aren’t there?), accompany James on his escape from his wicked aunts and on a long and unintended sea voyage aboard the titular peach. Scott Bellis in particular made a memorable impression as the irascible, Scottish-accented Centipede. His character also brought some unexpected pathos and emotion along with a gentle lesson about not prejudging others.
There are giant and miniature props both onstage and in the audience to add to the fun. And the costumes are also delightfully colourful and detailed, right down to the John Fluevog shoes (a show sponsor).
The songs were breezy and excellently performed, especially showing off young Julian Lokash’s range. Musical Director Steven Greenfield and the live band (a first for Carousel Theatre!) did an outstanding job. To my mind the songs themselves though, weren’t quite memorable enough – full of fancy off-kilter rhythms, they seemed for the most part to actively avoid a straightforward, catchy melody. There were certainly notable exceptions though, particularly Spiker and Sponge’s vaudeville-like numbers, and Earthworm’s hilarious “Plump and Juicy”, where, recruited as bait, he reluctantly extolls his own virtues.
In the end, the show is a solid evening of fun and will make for an enjoyable evening of family fun at the theatre!
James and the Giant Peach runs till January 4 at the Waterfront Theatre. Tickets are available online.