Imagination Stage presents the beloved classic, James and the Giant Peach, adapted by David Wood and directed by Janet Stanford. You likely know the story of James Trotter – an orphaned boy who escapes from a miserable life with his aunts in a magical (giant!) peach accompanied by a band of talking bugs, but Stanford gives the story a unique twist by placing it on a 1960’s movie set, drawing pop influences from the very decade it came from. Artsy and avant-garde, this theme compliments the unique style of Dahl nicely, and the result is a vibrant afternoon of fun!
Scenic Designer Milagros Ponce de Leon has the set in a near-constant state of motion, with large props wheeled across the stage, such as instrumental pieces, a gnarled paper-mâché peach tree, and a front door carved into a gargantuan peach pit. Puppet Designer Matthew McGee throws in a few of his creations as well, including a bulky-but-beautiful rhino head and seagull rod puppets. Video Designers Stephen Guidry and David Stern use cut-out animation, a style characteristic of the 60’s, on a large projector screen to help move along the plot and enhance the atmosphere.
Music Director Deborah Jacobson has the actors play instruments onstage like guitar, keyboards, and a bass drum to knock out the beats by Composer Tim Guillot, and Sound Designer Christopher Baine adds effects such as helicopter blades, screeching cats, and ominous thunder. Lighting Designer Cory Ryan Frank matches appropriate shades to emotions unfolding onstage, and their mixture with a light fog effect successfully sets the tone. This is one busy stage!
Costume Designer Kendra Rai continues the 60’s theme in her work, most noticeably in the exaggerated outfits of James’s aunts. Bright, fringed dresses are accompanied by beehive hairdos and knee-length white leather boots. Rai also uses the opportunity to sneak in some pop-culture references, with the most standout influence being a grey suit and bowl-haircut inspired by the Beatles, and worn by the Earthworm.
With an ever-present camera girl moving around the set and the scenes cut into “takes,” the story of James Trotter begins. After his parents are trampled by a rhino, James (Ian Berlin, in a showcase of young talent) is sent to live with his horrible aunts, Aunt Spiker (Joe Brack) and Aunt Sponge (Phillip Reid). The back-and-forth bickering chemistry of the aunts is fantastic, and their hilarious slapstick comedy was my favorite aspect of the show. Their groovy duet, “The Aunts Feel Pretty,” was one of the best moments, hands-down. For all their hilarity, however, they are completely nasty to James, and when a strange old man gifts him with a bag of magical crocodile tongues in a song called “Marvelous Things,” James dreams of how they will change his life…until he drops the bag, and they scatter away from him.
When a monumental peach grows from the once-barren tree, James’s curiosity finds him inside the giant itself, alongside a crew of life-sized talking bugs. The sweet Ladybug (Leigh Jameson), haughty Centipede (Eric Messner), melancholy Earthworm (Phillip Reid), kung-fu-kick Miss Spider (Lauren Du Pree), and rocker Grasshopper (Matthew Scleigh) welcome James with open arms (in their cases…several pairs!) as they embark on an adventure that takes them rolling down the hillside and soaring across the Atlantic. Together, they face dangers and work together, using each other’s individual skills along the voyage.
Reid’s slow, miserable droll as Earthworm is a great dynamic alongside Messner’s Centipede; the two argue like an old married couple, and prove to be fun foils. Scleigh narrates much of the story as the Grasshopper, emitting a heartthrob vibe that makes the women insects swoon. Will this band of new friends thrive…or find themselves in the pits?
Energetic, playful, and sporting a new theme of an old classic, James and the Giant Peach is a delight! I highly recommend it!
Running Time: 90 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
James and the Giant Peach plays through May 26, 2013 at Imagination Stage – 4908 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call (301) 280-1660, or order them online.