What do a throw pillow, a hula hoop, and a car door with the word “peach” spray painted on it have in common?
Stumped? Well, don’t rack your brain too much trying to solve this riddle because the answer won’t illuminate any similarities between those random items. When in various hues of orange, those and a few other objects portray the titular massive fruit in the Cup-A-Jo Productions production of James and the Giant Peach.
Playwright David Wood is credited with adapting Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, but their creative voices are muted and distorted by director Joanna Lowe’s peculiar vision for the piece. For me, a much trickier riddle to solve is the question of who the target audience is for her Peter and the Starcatcher-esque rendition of this Dahl classic. Cup-A-Jo’s James is marketed to patrons of all ages and levels of Dahl fandom, but unfortunately Lowe has stripped away nearly all of the sweeping emotion and adventure present in the original story that kids could have discovered for the first time and adults could have delighted in revisiting. In the place of those elements, she installs a clichéd framing device and all its tiresome, metatheatrical trappings.
James and the Giant Peach is a nearly 60 year old story that has proven durable and still resonant in somewhat radical adaptations. Both Henry Selick’s 1996 stop-motion animation/live action hybrid film version and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s (Dear Evan Hansen) musical version are generally well regarded and often rewatched/produced.
Lowe’s reimagining of James’s tale misses the mark because it lacks imagination. Rather than enhancing any of the themes and images Wood (and by extension Dahl) wove into the script, presenting James and the Giant Peach as a show-within-a-show only gets in the way of what makes it special in the first place. The company-within-the-company putting on this production is a ragtag group of performers called the Rough Road Players. At the top of the show, they stumble onto the stage with crazed expressions. They’re thrilled to finally have a captive audience, but their glee turns to panic when they realize they have no idea what play to put on. The possibilities and piles of unorthodox set, costume, and prop pieces seem endless.
Although this prologue goes on a bit too long, the players fail to justify their choice to put on James and the Giant Peach. One of the actors simply says the word “peachy” and everyone immediately falls in line and find the exact “right” found objects to tell their tale. The spirit of improvisation present when the players briefly consider putting on Les Miserables—imagine the aforementioned traffic cone as that show’s instantly recognizable waving red flag—promptly disappears when the proper story begins.
Instead of in France, we find ourselves in England where James Henry Trotter, a lively Samantha Smith, lives happily with his loving parents. Like Dahl’s other child protagonists, misfortune is only right around the corner for poor James. When his parents are tragically killed by an escaped rhinoceros, James is forced to live with his cruel aunts Spiker and Sponge.
Salvation comes for James when the giant peach appears outside his window. What was first a lucrative entrepreneurial opportunity for Spiker and Sponge becomes James’s ticket away from them. Upon discovering a way inside the peach, James meets a morose Earthworm (Michael Steven Brewer), a spunky Lady Bug (Kaitlin Kerr), a dapper Grasshopper (a charming Chris Morriss), a proud Centipede (Everett Lowe), and a friendly Spider (Maura Underwood).
Salvation for this production comes in the form of Lowe’s excellent casting choices. This ensemble truly does act as one, which makes the familial bond that forms between James and his talking insect friends seem all the more real.
Mr. Lowe and Ms. Underwood also play Aunts Spiker and Sponge, respectively, and spin over the top costumes and accents into comedy gold. The soundtrack of their abuse of James and one another is provided by narrator/composer Andrew Lasswell (who gives the silliest and most savage of his original songs to that musical comedy dynamic duo) and production designer/live onstage foley artist Lacy Brooks. You’ll despise the aunts when they’re there, but you’ll miss them when they’re gone thanks to the two talented actors who so vividly bring them to life.
As Earthworm, the most reluctant of the peach’s passengers, Mr. Brewer lures both laughs and hungry seagulls with his droll deadpan delivery.
On their journey across land and sea, James and the insects encounter all kinds of obstacles from their own hunger to a wild octopus. Disappointingly, these and other pivotal sequences are illustrated onstage by the gifted actors simply running in circles and/or screaming. In telling far more than it shows, the experience of seeing Cup-A-Jo’s James and the Giant Peach sometimes feels more like reading Dahl’s book but with much less magic. The unresolved, utilitarian aesthetic for this production leaves too much to the imagination of its audience.
The only magic on display here is turning this giant peach into a giant lemon.
James and the Giant Peach runs at the Glitter Box Theater through July 7th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews