Musical has legs — lots and lots of legs
Giant insects, evil aunts enliven slightly disjointed fairy tale
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.