Seattle Children's Theatre's new production of James and the Giant Peach (playing through Jan. 12) features a magical story, an amazing cast of colorful characters, superb music, an awesome set and a great message -- what’s not to love?
Roald Dahl’s books have been a staple of childhood literature for more than half a century. I still remember reading James and the Giant Peach late into the night under my covers with a flashlight, anxiously wondering where the peach would take James and his insect friends next. I devoured this production with the same enthusiasm that I had for the original book as a child.
This adaptation, written by Timothy Allen McDonald and featuring a score by Tony-Award nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is full of colorful costumes, an amazing set and superb acting and music. Following the play, we had the pleasure to hear from the playwright himself, who said he had been writing this adaptation in his head since he first read the book as a boy. I believe it, since he so effortlessly captured the imagination and zest of childhood. I was excited to take my 6-year-old to the see it, since he had just finished reading The BFG (another Roald Dahl classic) and I was hoping to convince him to pick James and the Giant Peach for his next book.
I wondered how a play adaptation of a story that takes so many dramatic turns would fare. How could they bring to life a house-sized peach, giant insects and the adventures at sea and flying through the air? It’s a tall order, but this production far surpassed any expectations I had.
It begins with James (Mike Spee), orphaned after his parents were killed by a rhino, being sent to live with his horrible — but totally hilarious — aunts, Spiker (Jane Muirhead) and Sponge (Julie Brisman). I haven’t seen such riotously likable villains since Carol Burnett played Miss Hannigan in Annie. The spot-on harmonies and witty dialogue made this duo my favorite part of the entire play. I was grateful that his aunts remained an integral part of the story until the very end.
I wasn't sure how I’d feel about a man playing the part of James, who is supposed to be a young boy, but Spee captures the character wonderfully, exuding the goofy exuberance of boyhood in every song and musical number throughout the story.
His giant insect friends are full of personality and charm. Centipede (Rich Gray) is the perfect rough-around-the-edges but likable character. The nervous Earthworm (Heath Saunders) provides lots of laughs and is great metaphor for the anxiety children face. Grasshopper (Greg McCormick Allen) plays melodious tunes on his violin and exudes a paternal charm, while the ladylike Ladybug (Kendra Kassebaum) and feisty Spider (Diana Huey) both debut some amazing vocals. The costumes are incredible! Costume designer Catherine Hunt bridges the gap between their human-like qualities and bug-like features with amazing artistry, all while incorporating styles from the story’s 1950s England setting.
Other highlights included set designer Carey Wong's clever way of making it seem like a peach really was growing right before our very eyes. I particularly enjoyed the sequence of the peach rolling down the hill as it heads towards the sea beyond the White Cliffs of Dover.
The play isn't without a lesson, as song and dialogue show how James and his friends define what it truly means to be a family. I may have found myself getting a little choked up at the end. I have seen quite a few plays and productions for children, but this was by far my favorite.
“It was awesome! Can we plant a peach tree in our yard?”
- There are booster seats for little ones — snag one at the theater entrance.
- Bathroom lines get long at intermission, so try to go ahead of the show.
- Stay seated after the show and get treated to a Q&A with the actors. It was delightful to hear them answer the questions of their young audience.
- Parking can be tricky- you'll likely have to walk a few blocks.
- Check out the active audience guide for the show, with lots of fun info and activities to get kids excited, educate them about insects and read more about the play.
If you go ...
Where and when: James and the Giant Peach: The Family Musical plays at the Charlotte Martin Theatre at Seattle Center through January 12.
Tickets: $32 per child, $39 per adult. Buy online.
Ages: The show is recommended for ages 6 and older, although younger children who can sit through a two-hour play with one intermission may enjoy this show, as well.