OREM — I subjected Hale Center Theater Orem’s production of James and the Giant Peach to the toughest test that a theatre for young audiences (TYA) show can have: Could my 5½-year-old-son sit through the entire show? This was his first play, and I was not sure how he would handle the unfamiliar story and experience. My worries were misplaced, though. Hale Center Theater Orem’s James and the Giant Peach hits the sweet spot for TYA; the show is engaging for children and enjoyable for parents, too.
Based on the Roald Dahl book of the same title, James and the Giant Peach is a modern fairy tale. James is an orphan who is sent to live with his cruel aunts, Spiker and Sponge. But soon a magic potion makes a peach on the sisters’ tree grow to gigantic proportions. Inside it live a group of pests, who have also become huge, and they befriend James as they and their peach go off on a wild adventure.
The script (by Timothy Allen McDonald) is accessible for children, but where the show shines is the music (by Justin Paul) and lyrics (Benj Pasek). Pasek’s lyrics are witty, and Paul’s music is as catchy as the finest songs in the musical theatre canon. “Plump and Juicy” is eminently danceable, and “On Your Way Home” is a sweet character song for James. The creative team set out to write a sophisticated musical that happens to be based on a children’s book, and they succeeded.
Likewise, the team at Hale Center Theater Orem held little back in mounting this production. Lisa Hall‘s directing is masterful; she treats her audience seriously and does not condescending at all to children. Hall sprinkles every scene with bits of stagecraft that fascinated my son. Whether it was a big moment (like the peach rolling down a hill) or small (such as when the aunts break James’s mementos of his deceased parents), my son was pleased to see actions and movement that served the storytelling. The show also moves quickly, which Hall understands is essential for a production aimed at children, though my son was fidgety for the last 10 minutes — as were most of the younger children in the audience during the climax.
Hall takes her audience seriously, and that set the tone for the rest of the artists in this production. Kelsey Phillips Harrison‘s choreography is energetic, especially the pizzaz of “Mix It Up” and the Latin moves of “Plump and Juicy.” Even when the full cast of 11 was dancing at full throttle, Harrison’s choreography never felt constrained by the small stage. The designers, likewise, created superb work for James and the Giant Peach. Foremost was Lexi Goldsberry, whose costumes were memorable and eye-catching. The eclectic mix of costumes pieces of Ladahlord (played by Scott Fletcher) established the character as a mysterious outsider and an excellent narrator for the play. The sparkle of the huge pests’ costumes were a nice way to unify the group’s look and seemed reminiscent of the magic that made them grow.
The only aspect of the play that seemed out of place was the set (nominally designed by Jason Baldwin). The show has to share a stage with the theater’s current production of The Music Man, which meant some of the action took place in pre-World War I gazebos, and signs advertising “Madison Hospital” and “Madison Library” decorated the theater. This did not seem to matter much, though. Children are adept at using their imaginations, and Hall’s directing is coherent enough that the location of the action was clear. If I did not know better, I would think that staging the play on the same set was a nefarious plot to advertise The Music Man to the parents in the audience.
The actors’ performances are on the level typical for the Hale’s mainstage shows. As James, Cade Hixson is an enjoyable presence. I appreciated watching the character grow from submissive orphan to an active problem-solver. Also, Hixson’s performance of “When You’re Alone” overflowed with vulnerability. James is the only realistic character in the play, and Hixson’s sincere and sweet performance made him a solid anchor for the show.
As Spiker and Sponge, Delayne Bluth Dayton and Brandalee Bluth Streeter (respectively) were my son’s favorite performers, and they nearly steal the show. The two characters are typical Dahlian adult villains, and both Dayton and Streeter embraced the goofiness of their roles. The two felt like a demented vaudeville duo, and their giddiness and greed made “There’s Money On That Tree” my favorite number in the show.
The bugs and pests inhabiting the tree were a fun ensemble, and every actor contributed to the success of the peach scenes. It is hard to choose a favorite, but I did love the British music hall styling of Grasshopper (played by Ian Webb) and the refined characteristics of Ladybug (played by Hailey Bennett Sundwall). As Centipede, Richie Trimble was a fun character whose standoffish behavior literally and figuratively set him apart from the other bugs. Another the reason these three actors were noteworthy is their impeccable British accents, including Trimble’s unexaggerated working class Cockney, which contributed to the English setting of the play.
Overall, it is rewarding to see children treated as fully worthy audience members, and not second class citizens of the theatre. Hale Center Theater Orem has thrown almost everything they have at this production, and the result is the best TYA production I have seen in recent memory. With top-level talent on stage and off, nothing is the pits for Hale Center Theater Orem’s James and the Giant Peach. Indeed, my son loved James and the Giant Peach so much that he later asked when he could see another play. If the goal of a TYA show is to get kids hooked on theatre, then James and the Giant Peach is a success.