James and the Giant Peach

ArtsWatch Weekly: artists at play

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

When visual artists and show people get together, interesting things often happen. Some collaborations have become legendary: Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural set designs for modern dance icon Martha Graham; Léon Bakst’s expressionistic designs for Ballets Russes. The original designs and even the title for the musical Fiddler on the Roof were inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge’s astonishingly absurdist designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s equally astonishing and absurd The Nose brilliantly suggested the tone of the Gogol story that inspired the opera. Last season, Portland Opera produced Stravinsky’s classic mid-twentieth-century opera The Rake’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous eighteenth century series of paintings and prints, with David Hockney’s inspired modernized designs.

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Paageno (John Moore) and Sendak's set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Papageno (John Moore) and Sendak’s set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Now Portland Opera is back with a new production of Mozart’s fabulist opera The Magic Flute, using sets and costumes designed in 1980 by the brilliant children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose designs for The Nutcracker were also a mainstay at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years. Sendak’s sets and to a lesser extent his costumes for The Magic Flute are immediately identifiable as his and his alone: in this case the collaboration is an overlay of artistic sensibilities, a discovery of parallels between two artists whose outlooks differ but mesh well. Sendak’s bright color sense and playfully exaggerated figurative style emphasize the childlike aspects of Mozart’s music and the opera’s slightly nonsensical tale. Sendak didn’t so much rethink his source material, the way that Kentridge and Hockney did, as find a level of mutual agreement, a seductive surface that allows the music to dive more deeply behind the mask. He created very traditional tableaux, but in his own  pleasing and agreeable style, and the result is … well, pleasing and agreeable and pertinent.

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Sweet treat: James’s giant peach

Oregon Children's new musical-theater adaptation brings Roald Dahl's tale to juicy life

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.

James and Lahdalord: all that glitters. Photo: Owen Carey

James and Lahdalord: all that glitters. Photo: Owen Carey

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.

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