Zach Theatre’s “James and the Giant Peach” brings the classic book by Roald Dahl to life through April 10. The musical plays right to elementary schoolers’ love for physical humor.
The aunts, Spiker (Amber Quick) and Sponge (Kim Stacy), in particular, supply much of the humor, as well as the fear. They see the orphan James (played by young actors Chris Carpenter and Diego Rodriguez) as a commodity to work for them. They make their living as both pick pockets and con artists. And, of course, when a magic giant peach grows on their property, they see it as another way to make money. They have gotten rich selling the rights to the peach in advance.
One night, they banish James from the house and he find his way into the peach, where insects have grown magically to the size of humans.
Soon the peach, escapes the tree and rolls off the cliffs of Dover, making its way to the Atlantic Ocean and eventually to New York City. Still scheming, the aunts, have taken all their money and booked a cruise. Of course, from their deck chairs, they see the peach floating on the water and vow to get it back.
The insects — Ladybug (Jessica O’Brien), Spider (Megan Wright), Centipede (Russel Taylor), Grasshopper (Michael Marchese) and Earthworm (Gustavo Gomez) — and James form a family on their journey and they protect one another and the peach.
One of the strongest elements of this play is this question of what is a family? James has lost his only to be plopped into life with two aunts who are less-than hospitable. The insects have all lost their families to pesticide sprayed by the aunts. Yet, together, James and the insects overcome their differences and create a lasting bond.
Like a family, the cast works well together. Harmonies are particularly tight in the large musical numbers. It is a true ensemble cast. Each character is given a chance to shine with unique characteristics and costuming, but also opportunities to take a back seat and support another character. It’s a good lesson in working together for young kids.
There are a few scary parts — James’ dream about his parents’ death by a runaway rhinoceros, in particular, but the musical quickly moves along. For that reason, the musical is better suited for elementary school-age kids rather than preschoolers.
The costumes, which were originally designed for Alliance Theatre by Sydney Lenior, are particularly smart. How do you make a man look like an earthworm? 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 boots. It’s all very smart.
At an hour and 15 minutes, this is one of Zach Theatre’s longest musicals for family audiences. Some members of the audiences squirmed a bit in the middle, and we saw a couple trips to the bathroom in our elementary school student audience.
Some of the biggest laughs come from Sponge, the aunt who will never be called skinny. Many of her jokes are about her love of food and her figure. In this age of worrying about girl’s body image and obesity, it was just too much. One or two jokes, maybe, but constant jokes on this line becomes unsettling.
Still “James and the Giant Peach” is worth seeing. Kids will love all the insects and love to hate the aunts. Sometimes Zach Theatre opts to use adults in their 20s to play young children. In this case, it opted to use an actual boy. In our performance, Diego Rodriguez was particularly strong with a beautiful voice. His age makes him even more identifiable to a young audience.
“James and the Giant Peach.”
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, March, 12, 19, 26; April 2, 9. 2 p.m. Sunday, Saturday, March 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, 27; April 2, 3, 9; and 4:30 p.m. April 10
Where: Zach Theatre’s Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside Drive
Tickets: $29 adults, $26 children