The young, award-winning duo Pasek and Paul have set the somewhat dark Roald Dahl book James and the Giant Peach to a memorable score. Oregon Children’s Theatre has assembled a large and talented cast to bring this production to life for audiences young, older and many-legged.
Funny, plump and juicy, this James and the Giant Peach begins as a magiquarium to the senses, an old-timey spellbound set that conjures up seaside boardwalks where a few yarns might be spun around a crystal ball, games of chance will seal your fate (or possibly take the last of your allowance), and unusual creatures from the most distant places on the globe are put on display. The catchy, inspired overture floats through the air on strings like a delightful nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein: some classical motifs put it in a Broadway frame. Our narrator, Ladahlord (Gerrin Delane Mitchell) bolts out onto the stage and introduces us to the backstory of James Henry Trotter with a vocal dynamo that recalls a younger Ben Vereen. Between Mitchell’s acrobatic dancing and recounting of the young James’s life, a little Dixieland Jazz kicks in.
Mark Haack’s set design transforms from posters and lights of the midway at a fair, to an immense and elaborate European-styled puppet theater with its layers of walls, which move in and out, back, forth, and through. There’s an organic charm to this lifesize diorama, reminiscent of daydreaming during school,which is the root of a Dahl story.
Once you’re a Dahl fan, you’re a lifer. Dahl’s eldest daughter, Olivia, contracted and was taken by measles at a young age. He had been writing before, but the event turned him into the writer we’ve come to love for his youthful cynicism. He felt helpless at her passing, and wrote a book with his stand-in, a fantastic Mr. Fox, to help him understand the grief that can be part of childhood, even for parents. His darkness sheds light on children’s literature, making a voice for the outcast young in their sadder situations, while giving them a flicker of hope that things will be alright and they will be a hero in the end. From his most famous – almost poverty-ruined Charlie, whose heart of gold survives trials by fire, and who becomes the heir of the chocolate factory – to Matilda, whose clever magic puts an abusing schoolmistress in her place, children everywhere have delighted in Dahl’s tales of resilience and honesty.
James is no exception. This musical show of the libertarian corrupt aunts, Spiker and Sponge, gives them room to be just evil enough to convince, but they are also a little lighter than in the book, so to not spook away the youngest set. Stephanie Leppert’s Spiker is the gangly mastermind, a great rail-thin stature of nuisance who captures the book description to a” T.” Sponge, played by Victoria Blake ,is less sweaty and sallow than the Dahl picture, but but she comes off as more menacing, which is needed for a live reenactment and to stay on par with her sister. This Sponge is dim, but practiced at the con game with Spiker: the less-than-dynamic duo paint a picture of bad adults self-absorbed.
James’s future family, a company of insects, metamorphose from large hand puppets into walking, talking, anthropomorphic figures. The musical’s book writer, Timothy Allen McDonald, has put some clever spins on the exoskeleton crew personalities. Jason Bray’s costumes dress Ladybug as a lady in cocktail attire, Eathworm as a sightless creature bearing huge Coke-glass goggles, Centipede as a little punk-rock with wild hair and damaged sleeves. Spider has a little vamp to her, and Grasshopper dons a pair of jodhpurs. It’s almost as if a gang of kids found the best parents’ closet in the world and went to town.
Pasek and Paul’s tunes are delightful and light, not the forced idiocy that plagued and belittled children’s and family music for years, but a sensitive collaboration whose roots feel like Sondheim. The lyrics have enough rhyme and repetition for younger kids to get into the numbers, but a wit that older kids who’ve read the book will appreciate. Two children switch off in the role of James, and Theo Curl begins the run (Aida Valentine is the other James). Acting with a well-seasoned troupe, Curl shines on stage with the heartlessness and empathy that round out James’s character and an eager physical energy that says he loves his part. Curl’s duet with narrator Ladahlord Shake It Up sounds like Broadway meets Motown, and Curl meets Mitchell’s Ladahlord step for step in the dance and song.
Oregon Children Theatre’s James and the Giant Peach is a huge and moving tribute to contemporary musicals and the underlying hope that is born out of wild growing pains. It offers the sweet view that Dahl wanted us to honor through his stories, a view that shines from the young actor and onto the audience: our children are smarter and more sophisticated than u,s and that’s a priceless dream come true.
Oregon Children’s Theatre’s James and the Giant Peach continues through May 29 in the Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.