'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

Production

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.

Creative

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.

Cast

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.

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