BWW Reviews: SCT's JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is Magical Sweetness
When casting my reviewers eye to the world premiere musical version of Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach", currently playing at Seattle Children's Theatre, I am forced to look upon the show from two perspectives. From the kid perspective, as this is children's theatre, will this be entertaining and accessible enough for kids? And from the adult musical theater lover perspective, as this is a brand new musical from some up and comers in the musical theater scene Justin Paul, Benj Pasek and Timothy Allen McDonald, is this something that can make a musical theater lover squeal with delight at the thought of it getting a wider audience (like maybe Broadway)? And while from the kid perspective this was a lovely and thoroughly fun time for any age, the musical theater snob in me felt the show just needs a little more work to be truly great. But it's certainly on its way.
Faithfully adapted from Dahl's story we meet the orphaned James (Mike Spee) whose parents met an untimely death at the hand (or hoof) of an escaped Rhino. So the sweet yet lonely James is sent off to live with his only living relatives, his horrible Aunts Spiker and Sponge (Jayne Muirhead and Julie Briskman). And while his Aunts have no use for a child they do have use for a servant and so James is set to horrible tasks from the pair. But things begin to look up for James when a mysterious old man shows James a book of spells to grant James his heart's desire. But when the spell gets away from him it doesn't end up enchanting him but the peach tree in his front yard which grows an enormous peach so big that Spiker and Sponge see a way to make money off it by charging admission to view it. But their plans are soon thwarted when James crawls into the peach and meets several insects who've also been enchanted and grown to human size and they break the peach away from the tree to escape and set off on a great adventure.
A few liberties are taken from the original but it's quite an honorable adaptation and filled with heart. The structure of it might need some work (especially a somewhat anti-climactic Act One closer) and it feels like it wants a bigger set and cast for some of the numbers. But for where it is now it's certainly a wonderfully touching show and I found myself longing for the cast album when done. And the sets by Carey Wong, the costumes by Cathy Hunt and the puppets by Annett Mateo all bring a lovely whimsically magical feel to the show. At times they felt a bit under done but then this isn't a big Broadway show yet.
Whatever drawbacks the show may have (and that's not a lot), the cast more than makes up for with their tremendous talent and obvious joy in telling the story. Greg McCormick Allen as the Grasshopper once again shows himself off as the consummate song and dance man and makes the perfect father figure for the show. And as the mother figure and Miss Ladybug, Kendra Kassebaum manages a confident sweetness to the role. Diana Huey as the Spider too brings to the character a charm and sweetness but also a bit of mischievousness. Richard Gray as the Centipede generates some of the internal conflict within the peach beautifully and his final reconciliation brought a tear to my eye. Heath Saunders as the Earthworm adds in much of the comedy of the piece and nails every aspect of the character (especially his big crowd pleasing number "Plump and Juicy"). Spee as the heart of the story couldn't be more adorable or shine brighter in the role. But it's those Aunts who completely walk off with the show. Briskman and Muirhead make for the perfect comedic bad girls. It's a small wonder that they were in so many scenes on their own as really, who could compete?
Whether you're a parent looking for an outing for the kids, a lover of musicals who's interested in the latest local offering or a fan of the book, there's something here for everyone. And as someone who's two out of those three things, I was absolutely delighted by the outcome.
"James and the Giant Peach" performs at Seattle Children's Theatre through January 12th. For tickets or information contact the Seattle Children's Theatre box office at 206-441-3322 or visit them online at www.sct.org.
Photo credit: Chris Bennion