Mu­si­cal has legs — lots and lots of legs

Gi­ant in­sects, evil aunts en­liven slightly dis­jointed fairy tale

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - ARTS & LIFE - By Ran­dall King ran­dall.king@freep­

IN the fore­front of the play James and the Gi­ant Peach are a plucky kid, his two evil aunts, a coali­tion of creepy-crawlies and, of course, a ginormous fruit.

You might not nec­es­sar­ily want to tell the kids this is also a full-blown mu­si­cal, an adap­tion of Roald Dahl’s 1961 book of the same name by song­writ­ers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ( A Christ­mas Story), with a book by Ti­mothy Allen McDon­ald.

Af­ter all, it is one thing to watch a kid have a mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion with a gi­ant talk­ing cen­tipede.

It is quite an­other to have some­one break into song at any mo­ment. That’s just un­re­al­is­tic.

Like many of Dahl’s sto­ries, this one has the feel of a frac­tured fairy tale, with all the fan­tasy el­e­ments a kid expects, de­liv­ered with a se­ries of know­ing winks at the par­ents in the au­di­ence.

James Henry Trot­ter, played by 14-year-old Win­nipeg­ger An­ton Dahl Sokalski, is a typ­i­cally trou­bled Dahl hero. He has lost his par­ents, ap­par­ently, to a rag­ing rhi­noc­eros (al­though the pre­cise story, told in a pup­pet-driven pre­lude, is dif­fi­cult to dis­cern).

Re­sid­ing in an or­phan­age, James is sent to live with a couple of aunts in a house by the sea­side. Sounds lovely, ex­cept aunts Spiker (Sharon Ba­jer) and Sponge (An­drea del Campo) are a beastly pair, ca­reer crim­i­nals who steal from tourists and keep out of jail by brib­ing the au­thor­i­ties. (Dahl’s sto­ries, which also in­clude Matilda and Char­lie and the Chocolate Fac­tory, are of­ten un­com­fort­ably worldly that way.)

The two greedy aun­ties de­cide James will be their per­sonal “helper mon­key,” des­tined to spend his young life slav­ing away for the pair. For­tu­nately, the mag­i­cal Ladahlord (Matt Mur­ray) pops up out of nowhere to show James how to mix a mag­i­cal po­tion that will em­power him in his con­flict with his ex­ploita­tive re­la­tions.

Alas, James trips and the po­tion falls from his hands and onto the bug-rid­den peach tree in the sis­ters’ back­yard. The po­tion’s magic causes a sin­gle peach to grow to the size, ap­prox­i­mately, of a Toronto stu­dio apart­ment. The sis­ters get set to ex­ploit the be­jee­bers out of this un­ex­pected wind­fall, but the peach falls and rolls out to sea, tak­ing James and the afore­men­tioned mag­i­cally mu­tated in­sects along with it. Among their num­ber are the dig­ni­fied Grasshop­per (Si­mon Miron), the motherly Lady­bug (Stephanie Sy), the cow­ardly Earth­worm (Matthew Fletcher), the clever Spi­der (Julie Lums­den) and the hos­tile Cen­tipede (El­liot Lazar), who votes to eat James to fend off the pos­si­bil­ity of star­va­tion on the un­ex­pect­edly sea­wor­thy peach.

Dahl’s story has a pi­quant theme about choos­ing a fam­ily when your blood re­la­tions prove to be un­sat­is­fac­tory. In that re­gard, it’s a cu­ri­ously counter-in­tu­itive choice for a show timed for the hol­i­days.

But it has its plea­sures. Young An­ton has a beau­ti­ful, bell-clear voice, ev­i­denced in his lovely early solo, On Your Way Home. As the vil­lains Spiker and Sponge, Ba­jer and del Campo have big screechy fun that proves in­fec­tious. The pro­duc­tion de­sign (set, cos­tumes and pup­pets) by Sean Mulc­ahy is ap­peal­ing in its hand­made-funky es­thetic.

It’s a big, elab­o­rate show, and di­rec­tor Car­son Nat­trass keeps things on track, al­though the ride is oc­ca­sion­ally bumpy. When the show re­lies on pup­petry for im­por­tant bits of ex­po­si­tion, it’s not as co­gent as it could be.

In an early per­for­mance for school kids, the cast didn’t al­ways jell. It of­ten felt like watch­ing nine in­di­vid­u­als in­stead of a good clock­work ensem­ble, a state of af­fairs that will likely fix it­self af­ter a few shows.

Work­ing the bugs out, as it were.


An­ton Dahl Sokalski (atop the peach) lets loose with his ter­rific voice at Man­i­toba The­atre for Young Peo­ple.

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