Review: James and the Giant Peach at Heritage Players

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.

(l-r) Rebecca Hanauer as Ladybug, Brandon Goldman as James, Jeremy Goldman as Grasshopper, Matt Scheer as Earthworm, Megan Mostow as Spider, and John “Gary” Pullen as Centipede. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

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.

(l-r) Megan Mostow as Spider, Brandon Goldman as James, and Rebecca Hanauer as Ladybug. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

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 as James. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

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.

(l-r) Megan Mostow, Rebecca Hanauer, Brandon Goldman, Jeremy Goldman, Matt Scheer, and John “Gary” Pullen. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

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.

(l-r) Ashley Gerhardt as Spiker and Amy E. Haynes as Sponge. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

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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Review: Sweet Charity at Heritage Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

Most of us just want to be loved, right? I say “most” because there are some folks out there who are content and happy (or claim they are) without the love of others. However, this is not the case with the title character of Heritage Players latest offering Sweet Charity, with a Book by Neil Simon and Music and Lyrics by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, respectively. This production is Directed and Choreographed by Timoth David Copney with Music Direction by Mari Hill.

Briefly, Sweet Charity concerns itself with the romantic goings on of Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer (a profession that teeters precariously on the line of prostitution) in a seedy dance hall in New York City. Her surroundings may be drab but Charity’s optimism, romanticism, and upbeat attitude seem to get her through tough times. She’s been dumped, robbed, and insulted by lovers and boyfriends but she still sees a better life for herself. She meets Oscar, a neurotic, shy fellow, is it possible she has found true love at last… or is the other shoe just waiting to drop?

Bailey Wolf as Ursula, Daniel Douek as Vittorio Vidal, and Katherine Sheldon as Charity, and Kamryn Polastre Scott as Doorman. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Set Design by Ryan Geiger is minimal but absolutely appropriate, using moving set pieces to represent various locations on a simple black stage. I don’t mind the black stage, but the stage is a bit unkempt with the use of sheets or curtains of different shades of black and different, ununiformed lengths which is a bit of a distraction. Overall, however, the set worked for this piece as there is heavy choreography and you don’t want a bulky set in the way of that. Geiger used his space wisely and the unkemptness may very well be a part of the design as a lot of the action takes place in the seedier-looking parts of New York City.

Andrew Malone’s and Lanoree Blake’s Costume Design is on point for this period, 1960s piece. Every stich of clothing on this ensemble is well thought-out and authentic to the time. The bright color palate, the styles and crazy prints, the hair… everything just oozed the mid to late 60s and I love it. Kudos to Malone and Blake for their efforts and superb design.

Mari Hill’s Music Direction is concise and she has this cast and orchestra sounding tight. Since quite a few of these songs are standards, it’s a good chance most or at least some of the audience will at least be familiar with the tunes but Hill doesn’t let that deter her and she has guided this ensemble to perform these songs well and true to the original compositions. The orchestra that has convened for this production is led by the able and well-apt Patty DeLisle, who doubles as both Conductor and Keyboards, sounds sweet and strong. The orchestra consists of: Will Zellhofer on Keyboards, Mari Hill, Matt Elky, Dan Longo, Katie Marcotte, and David Booth on Reeds, Erica Bright and Jon Bright on Trombone, Randy Whittenberger, Kevin Shields, and Allyson Wessley on Trumpet, Billy Georg on Percussion, Maxwell Kazanow on Guitar, and Thomas Jackson on Bass Guitar.

“I’m a Brass Band” with Katherine Sheldon as Charity and the Cast of Sweet Charity. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

It’s worth mentioning that Sweet Charity was given a successful 1969 film adaptation (depending on who you talk to) staring Shirley McClain and Chita Rivera (not to mention Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ricardo Montalbán) and directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse. That being said it, it can be a challenge to recreate a well-known piece and present it in a fresh light. Timoth David Copney stepped up and took on this challenge not only as Director but doubling as Choreographer and his efforts are not in vain. Copney presented this piece in a more traditional setting, as written, and didn’t mess much with the original script/score. His choreography is impeccable and is prominent in moving the story along. For “Rich Man’s Frug,” it’s clear he makes an homage to the film adaptation with near exact chorography. On a side note, Libby Burgess (Lead Frug Dancer) tears up the stage with concise and tight movement that adds great value to this intricate dance number. He knows his cast and has created movement that makes them shine rather than hinder their performances. That being said, it seems Copney concentrated mainly on choreography (because it really is brilliant) and less on blocking and scene work. The pacing is a bit lagging, especially in lengthy scenes with most of the ensemble onstage, but still, the story is so cleverly written, the dialogue helps with the pacing. Handmade signs between scenes poking out of the side of the stage are a bit hokey and barely legible if you are more than three rows back, but, thankfully, their not too, too important to the production. Overall, Copney’s efforts are commendable are and are to be applauded as it seems he has a good comprehension of both the text and the story as a whole making for a good showing.

“The Richman’s Frug” with the Cast of Sweet Charity, featuring Libby Burgess. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, I’d be amiss not to mention that the entire ensemble of this piece gives 100% effort and is dedicated to this piece and all should be commended for their efforts, including Apollo, the beautiful and well-behaved canine who makes a couple of cameos and is an absolute natural!

Taking on role of Vittorio Vidal, the Italian movie star with whom Charity has a chance encounter, is Daniel Douek, and he fully embodies this suave, yet tender character very nicely and exudes that beautiful balance of debonair playboy and lovelorn schoolboy giving an authentic and thoughtful performance, especially in his featured number, “Too Many Tomorrows.” Oscar, Charity’s main love interest, is played by Adam Abruzzo who plays this neurotic, shy character near perfectly. Abruzzo may not be the strongest, vocally, but his portrayal is delightful and his comedic timing is spot on making for a charming performance.

Anwar Thomas takes on the challenging role of Daddy Brubeck, the charismatic leader of the cult-ish religion of the Rhythm of Life, but he pulls it off quite well. His performance is confident as he tackles the facets of this kooky character and though, vocally, he could be stronger, especially in his featured number, the high-energy “The Rhythm of Life,” what he lacks in vocalese, he absolutely makes up for and shines in his dancing. This man is no joke when it comes to a dance number and he makes each move look effortless making for a strong performance, overall.

Katherine Sheldon as Charity Hope valentine. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Katherine Sheldon takes on the title role of Sweet Charity, otherwise known as Charity Hope Valentine, our upbeat, hopeful heroine. Sheldon seems to have a tight grasp of this character and plays her to the hilt. She portrays a good blend of optimistic innocence and a lifetime of broken hearts very well and it’s that perfect blend that makes this character work. It’s easy to see she’s worked hard for this role and her solo dancing and comedic timing is on point. She gives a good showing, vocally, in such numbers as the standard “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “Where Am I Going?”, but struggles a bit with the higher notes. However, that could very well be the result of her intense concentration on choreography, which she nails. Overall, Sheldon is confident and dedicating, making for a strong performance.

One highlight of this production is Jim Gerhardt, who takes on the role of Herman, the proprietor of the seedy dance hall ii which Charity works. This character certainly has a rough exterior, but deep down, is a big softy who cares about the girls who work at the hall and Gerhardt knocks it out of the ballpark with his portrayal giving us that perfect character in his mannerisms, stereo-typical “New Yorker” dialect, and his authenticity. Vocally, he shines, both while speaking and his featured musical number, “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Gerhardt is certainly one to watch in this show.

Megan Mostow as Helene, Ashley Gerhardt as Niki, and Katherine Sheldon as Charity. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Last but certainly not least, we have our hands down standouts Megan Mostow as Helene and Ashley Gerhardt as Nickie. These two ladies are superb in their roles and they work well off of each other making for a heartfelt and true performance that makes you want to be friends with both of them because you feel as though they’ll always have your back and that’s what makes a great portrayal. Mostow moves naturally onstage and embodies this character of Helene completely. Her delivery of the material is on point and it’s she’s comfortable with the character and has a strong presence making for a brilliant performance. Gerhardt, too, is confident and comfortable with and impeccable portrayal of this rough-around-the-edges character who has a heart of gold. Her dialect work is near perfect and she really has a good grasp on her character and her wants and needs.

Vocally, both actresses are powerhouses and their performances in numbers such as “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This” and their featured parts in the popular and well-known “Big Spender” will make you stand up and take notice while the poignant “Baby Dream Your Dream” will have you near tears with their touching performance. Overall, Mostow and Gerhardt are two who bring this production to the apex and their dedication to their characters and the production as a whole is quite apparent. Kudos to both for jobs very well done.

Final thought…Sweet Charity is a fun romp through a colorful, jazzy bygone era of what seems like a simpler time with interesting fashion choices. The story is cute, but not extremely deep, but it’s witty and funny with a book by Neil Simon, so, you can’t go wrong! The music is damn catchy and a few of these tunes are recognizable standards and this production doesn’t skimp nor cut corners with the dancing. Most of the characters are relatable and it’s a piece with which anyone who has a love of theatre should be acquainted. I recommend checking it out! You won’t be sorry you did!

This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of Sweet Charity… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Sweet Charity will run through April 29 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.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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