REVIEW: Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach - Chance Theater, Anaheim
Updated: May 7, 2019
“…Well Crafted, Ripe Entertainment!”
Picture a demonic, ravenous man-eating rhinoceros, friendly bickering between a pretentious centipede and a lovable insecure earthworm, magical crocodile tongues, violin operettas from a gentlemanly grasshopper, and two decidedly un-adoring aunts… there you have a story about the power of steadfast and unwavering courage that only a child can maintain – the kind of power that sometimes can be as sticky and sweet as a slowly rotting peach.
“James and the Giant Peach,” well-crafted, ripe entertainment, sensationalized by Chance Theater’s captivatingly prodigious cast of well-seasoned regulars, provides succulent lessons in courage, friendship, loss and tenacity in a world where the fantastically wonderful intertwines with the fantastically horrific. Winner of six Ovation Awards, this intimate theater has been designated the official “resident theatre of Anaheim,” and boasts four LADCC Awards, including the Polly Warfield Award for Outstanding Season.
Now extended by popular demand through March 10th on the Fyda-Mar Stage, "Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach," comes from the Tony-nominated composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ("A Christmas Story," “Dogfight,” “Dear Evan Hansen”).
The musical combines aspects of master storyteller Dahl's beloved 1961 book using his special brand of marvelous language and the 1996 adventure film, featuring a plethora of wickedly tuneful new songs, which, it should be noted, are not the same Randy Newman compositions featured in the popular film. Add to that a healthy dollop of theatre magic from playwright Timothy Allen McDonald with his witty, charming adaptation, a reduced run time of an hour and 15 minutes, and you’ve got a winner show that creates a world on stage that comes alive!
But to truly appreciate "Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach," you must first accept alternative universes, where the perfectly normal is anything but, and where everything is just a little bit weird.
Perhaps more than any other children’s author, British novelist Roald Dahl had an uncanny ability to tap into the mystical, strange, and subtly dark elements of childhood. Dahl's short stories are known for their explosions of creativity, their unexpected endings, their heartfelt emotion, yet often unsentimental, macabre and darkly comic mood, featuring villainous adult enemies of the child characters. Obviously, Dahl was not a fan of adults. “Matilida’s” parents anyone? How about “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?” His treatment of adults is nothing short of brilliantly-imagined caricatures of atrocious or borderline malevolent people. But perhaps no other work of his does this quite so well as his beloved classic, “James and the Giant Peach.”
And what better conduit, other than the incredible Chance production team, led by Director Darryl B. Hovis, Music Director Bill Strongin (“Emma, The Musical”) and Choreographer Christine Hinchee (“A Chorus Line”), to help transport you to that different world that castigates unpleasant adults and empowers quirky kids?
Sure, they ask a lot of us: to suspend our practical and logical senses and accept a totality where rhinoceroses orphans little boys, where a magical potion produces human-size talking bugs, and where horrid, old-maid aunts are nightmares come true. But this is a fairy tale beyond all fairy tales! I can’t remember when I laughed out loud so much in any theater. Finally! A very funny, fun show! From the first minute the lights dimmed, I was captivated by the actors - their timing, technique, high energy and flair. They worked as a cohesive team in that small space of the stage and knew their parts well, several assuming multiple animated characters in the space of seconds.
The impressive production team also includes Associate Director/Choreographer Miguel Cardenas (“The Secret Garden”), Scenic/Props Designer Megan Hill (“The Little Prince”), Lighting and Projection Designer McLeod Benson (“The Little Prince”), Costume Designer Alexandra McClain (“The Boy at the Edge of Everything”), Puppet Designer Aaron McGee (“The Little Prince”) and Stage Manager Randi Argenbright (“Emma, The Musical”).
The cast includes returning Chance artists Christopher Diem (“The Secret Garden”) as James, Tyler Marshall (“The Little Mermaid”) as Ladahlord, Shannon Page (“Emma, The Musical”) as Spiker, Richard Comeau (“The Secret Garden”) as Green Grasshopper, Miguel Cardenas (“Claudio Quest”) as Centipede, Lydia Margitza (“Big Fish”) as Ladybug, and Kristofer Buxton (“Emma, The Musical”) as Earthworm. Making their Chance debuts are the remarkable Rebecca Hyrkas (“Smokey Joe’s Café”) as Sponge and Lily Bryson (“Sister Act”) as Spider.
As the story begins, James, our hero, has just lost his parents after they were unceremoniously eaten by a giant rogue rhinoceros (factcheck: in real life, all rhinos are herbivores, but they ARE pretty scary). Now an orphan, James doesn’t fit in well and is sent to live with his hideous aunts by the head matron of the orphanage, played hilariously by Miguel Cardenas, beard and all.
Once he arrives to his cruel, conniving aunts’ house, Spiker and Sponge (who could easily be first cousins to Cinderella’s stepmother), they accept him begrudgingly, but decide to use him as slave labor. “Welcome to the family, moron!” declares Sponge, with intentional, over-the-top, arm-waving broadness.
One night, they banish James from the house, but he soon escapes his miserable existence thanks to some magical crocodile tongues, an enormous peach, and a collection of friendly bugs who reside inside it, who, somehow have grown magically to the size of humans. As it rolls out into the ocean, it launches a journey of epic proportions.
Facing hunger, sharks, a flock of seagulls (not the new wave group) intent on making a meal of the giant bugs, there are plenty of disagreements along the way. But that’s not the end of the story… Still scheming, the aunts, have taken all their money and booked a cruise. And as luck would have it, from their deck chairs, they see the peach floating on the water, realize the profitability as a tourist attraction (at least one of them), and vow to get it back. Eventually, James comes up with a master plan to save them all using aerial maneuvers that land them spiked on the top of the Empire State Building.
Mr. Diem, who also appeared as James in last year’s production of “James...,” excels in the role and not only appears child-like in nature as the young adolescent, but has that endearing personality trait that you just want to root for. It also helps that his vocals are expressly pure and on-target. His solo, “On Your Way Home,” and reprise was a refreshing rally cry and became the theme of the show.
Throughout the performance we’re treated to a colorful character called Ladahlord who here acts as a kind of Master of Ceremonies. He’s not exactly the narrator, more like a magician/ringmaster/Willie Wonka-type, but when he appears he becomes the glue that holds the story together. In the book he’s simply The Old Man, but in the musical, Ladahlord is a consummate, polished showman, continually pointing out things we’re about to witness right before our eyes. The titillating Mr. Marshall, in a last-year reprising role as well, astounds with his own uniquely delightful style and brand and is a comforting presence in the show, inferring that no matter what disaster is about to unfold for the young, innocent James, it’s not as bad as it seems.
Ms. Hyrkas and Ms. Page also nailed their characters, and then some! They were despicable and nasty, and yet maintained that ‘roll in the aisle’ humor with larger-than-life knockabout and exaggerated absurdity. I looked forward to them showing up in scenes very much. It’s as if they jumped off the pages of a comic strip and found themselves in the real world with no clue how to blend in. Their motorcycle riding with sidecar scenes were very clever, using the cast to represent handlebars and other parts, and made it easy to imagine the real thing. The two were marvelous in the duets, “Property of Spiker and Sponge,” “A Getaway for Spiker and Sponge,” and “I Got You.”
Like classic dell'Arte characters, Ladahlord and his collection of quick-change artists fill in the gaps of the storyline through song, dance and puppetry, many times requiring the audience to employ their own imagination to visualize the scenes. The five insect characters were the hit of the show - the ladylike Ladybug, the would-be leader Grasshopper, the sensuous Spider, the inhibited Earthworm, and the put-upon Centipede, all quick-witted, brilliant in their action, perfectly timed and animated.
This cast, in unison, is one of the most harmonious I’ve seen – in action as well as song. Each character is totally uproarious and given a chance to shine with unique characteristics and costuming, but also many opportunities to take a back seat and support another character. You’ll love Mr. Buxton as the androgynous, scaredy-cat Earthworm who finds his confidence in the rib-tickling “Plump And Juicy,” a show-stopping number in which he’s offered as bait to a barrage of attacking seagulls. And, the company really delivers the goods in the opening number, “Right Before Your Eyes,” “Shake it Up,” featuring Ladahlord, “Floatin’ Along,” featuring James, and “Empire State/The Attack,” again showcasing Ladahlord.
The costumes are particularly smart. How do you make someone look like an earthworm? Smooth salmon-colored fabric that is given thick rings nested together, just as an earthworm’s body does. How do you make a centipede’s many legs? Fabric belts coming off of the shirt and sides. All have certain “real person” attributes as well, personalities, clothing items, to help identify them and help the audience identify with them.
The set along with the multiple props used are adaptable, impressive and captivating, ever-changing throughout the life of the story, and the choreography allows the audience to see many different angles and understand the predicaments that James and his friends are up against.
“Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach,” now playing at Chance Theater, Anaheim, extended through March 10th with only seven more opportunities to see this amazing show: Friday, March 8th at 7:00pm, Saturday, March 9th at 11:00am, 2:00pm and 5:00pm, and Sunday, March 10th also at 11:00am, 2:00pm and 5:00pm. This show is Highly, Highly Recommended but selling out fast! Get your tickets while you can at https://chancetheater.com/