BWW Review: Fanciful, Family-Friendly JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH at Lyric Theatre
Adapting any children's book for the stage is likely to be a tricky proposition. By their very nature, kids' books are filled with challenging settings and characters, from talking animals to fantastical locations to entire magical worlds that come out of the most vivid and playful imaginations. It's no different for Roald Dahl's classic James and the Giant Peach. Having said that, it's hard to imagine any production of a stage version being as well-produced and successfully achieved as the one currently playing at the Lyric Theatre's Plaza Theatre.
The source material is Dahl's longtime favorite of many children and adults alike. It tells the story of James, an orphaned boy who is forced to live with his two mean, cruel aunts. When James comes to possess a book of magical spells, he accidentally creates the most giant peach anyone has ever seen. While his aunts take advantage of the peach for their financial gain, James crawls inside the enormous fruit and finds a group of human-sized talking insects who quickly become his friends. James and his new companions embark on a grand adventure when the peach rolls down the hill, off a cliff and into the ocean, heading to parts unknown.
In this musical version, Timothy Allen McDonald has provided the book, which is poignant and often very witty. There are moments for young kids to enjoy and others which will bring a smile and a chuckle to their parents' faces. As with most good tales of this kind, there are themes and laughs for everyone, adults and kids alike. The same is true for the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Some songs, such as "There's Money on that Tree" or "Plump and Juicy" are witty and hilarious. Others, like the poignant "Everywhere That You Are" provide moments of relatable, touching emotion.
While productions of this musical likely run the gamut in terms of production values and how much can actually be achieved on stage, Director Michael Baron and his team, including Choreographer Rachel Dolan and Music Director Mary Brozina, seem to have pulled out all the stops. At the same time, Baron has made sure that the universal human emotions at the story's core remain intact and in full view. He strikes a real balance here and succeeds at hitting all the notes just right, whether they are big laugh lines or touching moments of pathos. Some productions might have to give up one for the other or might not be able to achieve everything to such a high degree. Baron and the entire company prove you really can have it all.
A big part of that is the uniformly wonderful cast Baron has assembled. There are two young actors playing James and the performance I saw featured the adorable Hudson Ratcliff, an fine young actor. Leading the ensemble is Stephen Hilton as Ladahlord, the resident narrator and purveyor of magic. Hilton welcomes us into the story and makes a charming and charismatic guide through the adventure to follow. James' four insects friends are all played by undeniably talented performers. Jordan Jacobs is charming and has a fantastic singing voice as the Grasshopper. Lexi Windsor is adorable and a scene stealer as Spider. Jennifer Teel has the most beautiful singing voice on stage as Ladybug. Stephen Stark creates an entertaining journey for the at-first-sinister Centipede. And Justin Larman is brilliant in another scene-stealing turn as the afraid-of-everything Earthworm.
Rounding out the ensemble are the two biggest scene-stealers and, some might say, real stars of the show. Renee Anderson and Cristela Carrizales are perfect as James' horrible aunts, Spiker and Sponge, respectively. Every time they pop up on stage, they demand the audience's attention and reward it with absolute hilarity. They also have some the most fun and entertaining musical moments, which they execute perfectly.
Speaking of perfect execution, special attention must be paid to the technical crew who crafted this production. It's the kind of show that allows prop, set, light and costume designers to really use their imagination and have a lot of fun, which Lyric's team clearly did. The props and puppets, designed by Andrea Moore, are full of imagination and likely made everyone in the audience want to get up on stage and be in the show. Many moments in the story come down to how the props are used or how they work, and every prop in every moment worked great. Scenic Designer Katie Sullivan welcomes the audience into a world of pure imagination, filled with possibility and wonder at what might happen or who might pop out of some place next. That world is given life by Art Whaley's lighting design which is at times enormously playful and at other times highlights the more serious moments and emotions just right. Jeffrey Meek's costumes are as playful and fun as everything else on stage, full of paisley and plaids and floral prints. The actors are imaginatively decked out, form their perfect footwear to the wonderful wigs.
From the toe-tapping overture to the very last moment, this is a show filled with fun for the whole family. There are songs you will remember for some time, laugh-out-loud jokes and also some serious themes to be had if one wants to find them (most notably themes of what makes a true family and how we humans interact with the natural world around us). It has a relatively short run at the Lyric, so bring the entire family and make sure you do not miss it.
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH runs through April 9th at the Lyric's Plaza Theatre on NW 16th Street in the Plaza District. Performance times are 1:00 and 3:00 on April 2nd, 11:00am on April 6th, 11:00am on April 7th, 10:00am and 12:00pm on April 8th, and 1:00 and 3:00 on April 9th. Sensory-friendly performances are set for April 7, at 11:00 AM and April 8, at 10:00 AM. These performances are presented especially for children with autism-spectrum disorders. Tickets, starting at $20.00, depending on performance, can be purchased online at lyrictheatreokc.com and by calling the ticket office at 405-524-9312.
Pictured (L to R): Jennifer Teel, Jordan Jacobs, Lexi Windsor, Connor Willis, Stephen Hilton, Stephen Stark, Justin Larman. Photo by KO Rinearson.