By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
When it comes down to it, family is what matters, whether it’s by blood or by choice, we all need a place to belong, where we are loved for who and what we are with no questions asked. Some families look alike and some are a tapestry of colors and shapes and sizes but none of that matters when the love is there. This important message is clear in Heritage Players latest production of James and the Giant Peach with a Book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Words and Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. This new production, based on the classic novel of the same name by Ronald Dahl, is Directed by Elizabeth Tane Kanner, with Music Direction by Emily Taylor and Chris Pinder, and Choreography by Malarie Zeeks.
If you are not familiar with the story, briefly, it is about little orphan James who is sent to live with his horrible Aunts, Spiker and Sponge, who treat him badly. While performing some hard labor on the property, he runs into the mysterious Ladahlord, who gives him a magic potion that helps the old, dying peach tree produce a peach, but not just any old peach. This peach grows and grows until it’s as big as a house and James finds his way into this peach and meets a gaggle of insects, all his size, including a Spider, a Ladybug, an Earthworm, a Grasshopper, and a Centipede. All of them must get off the property before Spiker and Sponge destroy them in one way or another and they embark on a journey across the sea, all the while learning what it means to be loved and a part of a family.
Set Design by Elizabeth Tane Kanner and Atticus Copper Boidy is simple but effective for this piece. The decision for a unit set is wise and allows for set pieces to be rolled in to represent various locations, keeping it simple. The growth of the magic peach is clever, using various items at different stages of growth, so it’s easy to see a lot of thought went into this design. Some of the scenic painting is elementary, but it works for this fanciful piece and, overall, it’s easy for the actors to navigate and is appropriate for the production.
Costumer Lisa Chicarella had her work cut out for her with this whimsical tale but she has stepped up and created a wardrobe that works brilliantly with this piece. Each principle character is a different insect and the choice of wardrobe is flawless with elegant dresses and skirts for the French Spider and English Ladybug and the snazzy Grasshopper suit with a splash of green to get the point across. Not to mention the horrible Aunt costumes, which are over the top but absolutely fitting for this piece. The costumes were appropriate and the cast seems comfortable in them which adds great value to this production.
Malarie Zeeks’ Choreography is impressive and entertaining making for fun and energized numbers. She seems to know her cast and works with the different levels of abilities to create dances and movement that complement the ensemble and produce tight, strong dance numbers making for a delightful production, all around. Kudos to Zeeks for her work on this piece.
Emily Taylor and Chris Pinder tackle Music Direction for this production and their efforts are to be applauded. Using recorded music can be challenging, but Taylor and Pinder have this ensemble performing near flawlessly and bring Pasek and Paul’s score to life, vocally, with ease. The ensemble and individual performers are on key and in rhythm making for a tight, on point performance.
Director, Elizabeth Tane Kanner, seems to have a good grasp of this material and it’s message and presents it in a well thought-out production. Those the sets leave a little to the imagination, the character work and staging is on point. The pacing is stellar and Kanner creates a production that engage both children and adults, which can be tricky. She hasn’t just put on a “kids show” but a show that the entire family will enjoy. Her vision is clear and she has gathered a superb ensemble to present it.
It’s worth stating that the entire ensemble of this piece is a joy to watch. Every single actor and actress on the stage is giving 100% effort and it shows in the group numbers and scenes in between those numbers. Kudos to this entire ensemble for their efforts and the production they’ve mounted.
Brandon Goldman takes on the titular character of James and it’s easy to see he enjoys portraying this role. For being a younger actor, he holds his own against the older, more experienced actors and portrays James near perfectly as the longing orphan, just looking for a family to love and to love him. Though little Goldman isn’t extremely strong vocally, yet, he’s young, has great potential. His featured numbers are poignant and he pulls in the audience, especially in numbers such as “Middle of a Moment” This reviewer thinks he’s going to make a big splash in the theatre community as time goes on. It’s tough being the youngest in an ensemble but Goldman shines in this role.
Stephen M. Deininger as Ladahlord, the mysterious storyteller with a flair for magic who pops in every now and again, completely embodies this role and his energy is infectious. He takes this role and runs with it making him a joy to watch. Deininger knows how to read his audience and roll with the punches making him one to watch. Two other principle players, John “Gary” Pullen as Centipede and Matt Scheer as Earthworm also know their characters well and play them to the hilt. Pullen’s curmudgeon Centipede is believable and balances out the rest of the Insect crew while Scheer’s plays the anxious and jumpy Earthworm in such a way, you’re rooting for him throughout the production. Vocally, he’s confident and performs his featured number, the hilarious “Plump and Juicy” without a hitch. Having a taller stature, the jumpiness seems a little clunky rather than light and airy, but this doesn’t affect his character and he plays it easily.
Highlights of this production are Jeremy Goldman as Grasshopper, Rebecca Hanauer as Ladybug, and Megan Mostow as Spider. These three actors superbly play these characters as the ones who seem to bond most closely with James and they’re portrayals are spot on. Goldman’s Grasshopper is polite and caring, and has beautiful chemistry with his cast mates. His strong vocals add to the Insect numbers such as “Floating Along.” He’s a joy to watch and it’s easy to see he’s having a blast in this role. Rebecca Hanauer has a great grasp on her character and plays her with the dignity and grace that is required and performs a pretty believable English accent. Vocally, she’s a powerhouse and shines in numbers such as “Everywhere That You Are.” Working in tandem with Goldman and Hanauer is Megan Mostow who radiates in the role of the Spider. Her French accent is on point as his her character work. Her confidence and comfort being on the stage shines through and her solid vocals make her, too, a vocal powerhouse, especially in numbers where she is featured like “Floating Along” and the heartfelt “Everywhere That You Are.” Hats off to these actors for jobs well done and for giving the utmost effort in their roles.
Last but certainly not least, Ashley Gerhardt as Spiker and Amy E. Haynes as Sponge, the nasty, horrible aunts are absolute standouts in this piece. They’re chemistry seems effortless and they completely embody these roles. Haynes, who plays the less intelligent of the two, plays her seriously enough to get the job done but has enough fun to give the audience a great show. Her costumes are over the top and work perfectly for this story. Gerhardt, who is a brilliant character actress, chews this role up and spits it out making for a funny and unblemished performance. From her outfits to her English (Cockney) accent, she’s on point. Vocally, both Haynes and Gerhardt both give hearty performances and will have your ribs tickling with such featured numbers as “A Getaway for Spiker and Sponge” and the slapstick, and straight-up funny “I Got You.”
Final thought… James and the Giant Peach is a heartwarming, entertaining piece that is appropriate for the entire family. It teaches and spreads the message that family can be by blood or chosen and that there are all kinds of families out in the world. You don’t need to be from the same place or look the same way and this is absolutely relevant today. This important teaching is presented in a way that children will easily understand but engaging enough for adults to maybe learn a thing or two, as well. The production is well though-out and the casting is on point. Though only one more weekend to go, this is definitely a show you want to check out this season.
This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of James and the Giant Peach… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
James and the Giant Peach will run through July 14 at Heritage Players in the Thomas-Rice Auditorium on the Spring Gove Hospital Campus, Catonsville, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.
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