PERRY — As a child, I loved the works of Roald Dahl. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a genius girl with telekinesis, hang out with a BFG, or win a golden ticket to a marvelous chocolate factory? And even though I hate bugs, I loved the idea of going on an amazing adventure inside a giant peach. Dahl’s works inspire the imagination, and I am reading them to my own children now to pass on the same excitement to them. Thus, I was excited to take my son with me to see Heritage Theatre’s production of James and the Giant Peach, and I was duly impressed with the acting and singing that brought the night to life and was engaging for even the youngest theatre patrons.
In James and the Giant Peach, James Trotter is left an orphan after his parents are killed by a rhinoceros from the London zoo. He is the sent to live with his horrid aunts, Spiker and Sponge, who make him their slave. Things seem bleak when James meets a mysterious figure names Ladahlord, who gives him a spell to change his life. Unfortunately, it all goes awry when the potion is spilled onto an old peach tree, causing a gigantic peach and a handful of friendly bugs to grow and start an adventure to help James to find a real home.
I noticed that the musical (with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book by Timothy Allen McDonald) deviates from the original novel, but it adheres to the spirit of the story and delivers a lot of very catchy numbers along the way. I was most impressed with Andrew King in the title role of James. Rarely is so much weight of a show put on such small shoulders, but King gives an excellent performance. His sweet voice was beautiful on his solo “On Your Way Home.” A few nerves showed in his song “Middle of the Moment,” but this talented young performer impressed me with the range he was able to show in his character and the consistency of his British dialect at such a young age.
Director Jolene Zito made the interesting casting choice to have Hannah Smith play Ladahlord, a narrator-type character that is written for a man. Overall, the change in this character from tenor to soprano is not distracting, but I did notice it in a few places, like the through line for “Right Before Your Eyes.” Smith has a beautiful voice, a grace to her dancing, and good comedic timing that make her an intriguing guide for the evening.
The duo of Spiker (played by Makayla Thornley) and Sponge (played by Samantha Jarvis) are very funny, as both actresses are committed to their parts as despicable aunts. The outrageous hair and costumes worked fabulously to set them apart from other characters, including the aunts’ extreme wigs and Wicked Witch stockings. Some of Thornley’s and Jarvis’s blend and harmony was pitchy in “Property of Spiker and Sponge,” but the number had great choreography and was a lot of fun.
The insects are played by David Atkinson, Emily Jensen, Ollie Riley, Ivan Rojas-Fuentes, and Colton James Kraus. The group is first seen dressed all in black, with puppet versions of their insect until the magic potion makes them grow along with the peach. Once transformed, each actor could bring an even bigger performance. Grasshopper (Atkinson) was kind and patient with James and obviously smitten with Ladybug (Jensen) who is maternal and proper. Spider (Riley) was a little subdued in her performance next to surly Centipede (Rojas-Fuentes) and jumpy Earthworm (Kraus), who were both over-the-top in a wonderful way. The highlight of the show for me was when the insects sing “Plump and Juicy” as Earthworm does a samba in a tutti fruiti hat to lure in the seagulls to lasso them and pull the peach into the sky. The song is delightfully ridiculous, and it had the audience in stitches.
Zito does an excellent job using the smaller space of the Heritage stage well in both her direction as well as in the choreography she created. The set is pealed back like an onion until the audience sees the inside of a giant peach designed and constructed by Spot Beecher and James King and painted by Suzy Saunders.
Costume designs by Brianna Taylor are exceptional. Ladahlord’s bright sequined numbers are eye-catching throughout the evening and reflect her both mysterious and flashy personality. Each insect has a wonderful costume with attention to details that show what they are and help the actors inhabit the bug. From Spider’s web tights, to Ladybug’s frilly spotted dress, to the stripes on Centipede, I loved the costume designs. Even the chorus had a lot of attention in the costume and the color pallet, which really pulled the visual of the show together.
James and the Giant Peach is a play that is geared to a younger audience, but it is an enjoyable night for the young-at-heart as well. It shares encouraging messages for audience members, such as kindness, forgiveness, confidence, and imagination. I recommend it for a family experience, as it redefines family and what it means to be home in the closing number, “Welcome Home,” when James sees that family is about the people (or insects) that love you.