Review: ‘James and the Giant Peach’

'James and the Giant Peach'

Visually interesting, but dramatically lame, David Wood's adaptation of Roald Dahl's first children's book, "James and the Giant Peach," is satisfying theater neither for children nor their parents.

Visually interesting, but dramatically lame, David Wood’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s first children’s book, “James and the Giant Peach,” is satisfying theater neither for children nor their parents. Already adapted for the screen by Disney, and with a musical stage version in the works for next year, this “James” lacks energy and charm — unlike the wildly successful adaptation of Dahl’s “The BFG” presented by the Arden Theater Company two seasons ago, also under Whit MacLaughlin’s direction. Nevertheless, Arden reports that tickets are selling like hotcakes, defying all gloomy economic predictions.

The story is a boy’s picaresque tale; the adventures of James (played with wide eyes and short pants by James Ijames) begin after his parents are killed in London by a rhinoceros. Merely a brisk paragraph on the book’s first page, this scene is protracted and creepy onstage; the generally unresponsive children in the audience appeared not to get what the grotesque chewing noises were about.

James’ troubles begin when he is sent to live with horrible fat Aunt Sponge (Stephanie English) and horrible skinny Aunt Spiker (the excellent Harum Ulmer Jr.) who make a miserable Cinderella of him until a stranger appears with a bag of “marvelous things.” The song here should be catchy but isn’t. Once the marvelous things escape, the previously barren tree bears a giant peach; in it live a group of large insects who befriend James. The peach is James’ ticket out of there.

The insects lack distinct personalities, and their costumes (by Christal Weatherly) are “concepts” rather than illustrative: the centipede (Brian Osborne) wears a coat covered with nearly unrecognizable shoes; the spider (Ceal Phelan) has vampire fangs; the ladybug (Amanda Schoonover) wears a polkadot dress and boots; the grasshopper (Oberon Adjepong) is top-hatted; and the earthworm (Frederick Andersen) wears a horizontally-striped suit in which he walks, despite the talk of his slithering and gliding. The sharks, who make a brief appearance, are wonderfully scary in their sunglasses and pointy headdresses signifying fins.

Act two is a series of brief adventures at sea, which allow James to show how clever and brave he is. They also give Jorge Cousineau a chance to create snazzy computer animations (probably far less impressive to tech-savvy kids than to their parents). A favorite moment is the landing of the giant peach on the spire of the Empire State Building with a loud squishing noise.

The show’s language is too complex for young children (without any of the amusement of the “swiff-squiddled” language of “The BFG”), and its pace is too slow for older ones. In this presentation, Dahl’s famous edginess has become slightly cloying.

James and the Giant Peach

Arden Theater Company/F. Otto Haas Stage, Philadelphia; 374 seats; $30 top


An Arden Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by David Wood, based on the novel by Roald Dahl. Directed by Whit MacLaughlin.


Set, Matt Saunders; costumes, Christal Weatherly; lighting, Brian J. Lilienthal; original music, James Sugg; video and sound, Jorge Cousineau; production stage manager, Alana Wolff. Opened, reviewed Dec. 13, 2008. Runs through Feb.8. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.


Grasshopper … Oberon Adjepong Earthworm … Frederick Andersen Aunt Sponge … Stephanie English James … James Ijames Centipede … Brian Osborne Spider … Ceal Phelan Ladybird … Amanda Schoonover Aunt Spiker … Harum Ulmer Jr.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 0

Leave a Reply

No Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

More Legit News from Variety