Dallas — We’re big Roald Dahl fans in the Lemieux house. We’ve gobbled up all the Dahl staples: The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and Matilda are among our favorites. James and the Giant Peach was one of our first forays with our kids into the Dahl canon. It’s really a very simple story, though like all of Dahl’s work, it’s sprinkled with tragedy. We were ready for it, though, this Saturday at the Dallas Children’s Theater’s production of James and the Giant Peach. We’ve had our fair share of sadness this past year and lost some people who were very dear to us. Embracing that which confronts sadness is important to kids. It’s a feeling they experience more than we realize, and it’s comforting for kids to see it normalized on stage.
DCT’s production takes it easy on the sadness. It begins with a tour guide leading a group of New York City tourists to a stone house in Central Park. Here we meet our cast: James and his merry band of insects. The frame story allows the audience to understand who these characters are and how they came together.
This introduction seems unnecessary, and it does slow down the action considerably. Grainy projections function as the backdrop for the set, though the actual Peach and set itself are gorgeous. The first 20 minutes felt a bit sluggish and awkwardly paced for me, but as I looked over at Caroline, my 9-year-old, she was transfixed. Don’t overthink it, parents. The kids are already on the hook.
One of the main highlights of the first act is Steph Garrett as James’ “Aunt Sponge:” the clownish, overweight half of the duo of cruel aunts James is handed over to after the death of his parents (which is glossed over quite quickly here, to be clear). Garrett has a gift for physical comedy and she plays it well here.
The action between James’ life with his aunts and his journey into the titular peach does drag. Strange pauses and pacing made it hard to feel a sense of urgency. I’m not sure if this is a flaw in David Wood’s adaptation or a directorial choice, but when our hero finally lands himself (through some fortune teller magic) inside the peach with a group of five fantastic insects, the story really takes off. When the travellers are together, the poetry of Dahl's story is allowed to shine.
The peach itself looks great, and there is no doubt about the journey, the teamwork, and the friendship at play as the crew leaves their drab lives behind. Everyone has a skill to use on this journey. Fabulous costuming by Lyle Huchton adds to the magic. Miss Spider (Jori Jackson) and Ladybug (Allison Bret) were particularly sparkly to my 9-year old’s sensibilities. A true highlight of the production was a blacklit, underwater, bioluminescent puppet show, featuring an overboard Centipede (Alex Heika). Caroline leaned over and whispered, “Make sure you put this in the review!”
The story, overall, is simple. It’s a boy who has suffered real loss finding people to help him go on. The tragedy is always in the background for Dahl, informing the story but not overpowering it. That is true for this production.
Some Dallas staples make appearances as well. A well-assembled cast of local favorites make the production professional and well-acted. Paul T. Taylor as the Old Green Grasshopper, Anastasia Muñoz as Aunt Spiker, and Seth Magill (who co-wrote On the Eve) as the Earthworm are all welcome additions.
Caroline had her own notes to contribute, and mostly wants kids to know you won’t have to have read the book to follow the story.
● They took out some parts, but it is still awesome.
● I like that it can be for every single kid.
● It’s not a loud show.
● If your kids are one year old, let’s say, I don’t think they would really understand it but they will love it.
● If your kids love centipedes, earthworms, spiders, grasshoppers, and ladybugs, and a giant peach, they’re going to love this play.
Dahl’s gift was taking tragedy and turning it on its head. His ghouls are always tinged with the grotesque, which makes them easy to mock. His main characters almost always suffer unimaginable loss. In the end, it becomes a journey, the tragedy. A way to make sense of life and to find those that will make sadness more bearable. You’ll find all that makes Dahl endearing to readers present in this production.