By Kylie Miller
The Heritage Players began their run of James and the Giant Peach this weekend. Based on the book written by Roald Dahl, with lyrics and music by Justin Paul and script by Timothy Allen McDonald, the musical follows an orphan boy who embarks on a magical adventure. Though James and the Giant Peach is targeted mainly towards children, Director Elizabeth Tane Kanner did a wonderful job of creating a show that audience members of all ages can enjoy.
The cast of this production really seemed to be having fun on stage, which made the audience enjoy the show even more. James is played by Brandon Goldman, who fit the role perfectly. His vocal abilities shone through and brought the character of James to life.
James has two aunts, Spiker and Sponge, who were played by Ashley Gerhardt and Amy E. Haynes. Both were clear audience favorites, playing hilarious and outrageous characters, dressed in bright costumes with crazy hair and makeup. Gerhardt and Haynes worked fabulously together on stage especially during their funny songs, “There’s Money on That Tree” and “A Getaway for Spiker & Sponge.”
Stephen M. Deininger plays Ladahlord who functions as the musical’s narrator. He orchestrates the magic that occurs throughout the show. His ongoing song “Right Before Your Eyes” is a throughline for the show. Deininger was beyond engaging to watch on stage and excelled at performing for children.
The insect characters are played by Jeremy Goldman, Rebecca Hanauer, Matt Scheer, John “Gary” Pullen, and Megan Mostow. This group is first seen holding puppets of their given insect until a magic potion makes them grow, along with the giant peach. To display this change, the actors each turned into their insect rather than holding a puppet. While a clever concept, it was a bit confusing and difficult for young children in the audience to follow.
Before fully transforming into the bugs, the actors holding the insect puppets were dressed in business attire, which seemed like an odd choice. Once the actors became the insects entirely, they were dressed in very fitting costumes, embodying a grasshopper, ladybug, earthworm, centipede, and spider. Their song “Have You Ever Begun to Wonder?” opens up the second act and here the insects really came to life through the performers.
The ensemble was used often and effectively to help communicate the story. Comprised mostly of teenage actors, ensemble members danced and sang throughout the musical taking on various roles of townspeople, reporters, poison ingredients, and at one point, seagulls! Choreographer Malarie Zeeks did a great job at pairing each song with appropriate dance moves. While the choreography was fairly simple, it stayed fun and dynamic for children to enjoy. I even noticed some children in the audience attempting to dance along in their seats.
The story of James and the Giant Peach is set in the United Kingdom which requires the show to feature accents. I thought the actors did a great job with a British dialect and it was especially interesting how the insect characters had varying dialects of French, Irish, and Cockney. The producer, Ryan Geiger, also stepped in as the dialect coach for this production.
Designed by Elizabeth Tane Kanner and Atticus Copper Boidy, the set was built with several layers that peeled back as the story moved forward to feature different locations. The production also utilized signs at points of the show that labeled the given location, such as the orphanage and the train station. I thought this was a good choice but these signs were not used very often. If they had been made for all or most of the locations, this aspect would have been clearer and more cohesive. Lighting and sound complimented the musical well, along with fog that was used to create dream sequences on stage.
Several puppets were used in this production, including a rhinoceros, sharks, and insects. The giant peach was represented by a big umbrella that was painted orange. This was a creative choice that worked very well to demonstrate action such as the giant peach rolling through the village. Once the peach landed in the ocean, it became a part of the set which was solidified through staging.
James and the Giant Peach shares encouraging messages for audience members of all ages. The story and its quirky characters promote kindness, forgiveness, confidence, and imagination. Above all, it redefines family and what it means to be home through the closing number, “Welcome Home.”
The Heritage Players has every cast choose a charity in which donations are given to. James and the Giant Peach is raising money for the Spring Grove Hospital Patient Fund and the Ellicott City Partnership Flood Relief Fund. The Heritage Players are a great example of theater that is making a difference and producing quality work.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
James and the Giant Peach is playing every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through July 14th, 2018, at the Thomas-Rice Auditorium– 55 Wade Ave, in Catonsville, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.