James and the Giant Peach boasts a giant assemblage of talent
by Drew Rowsome - Production photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
It would be easy to say that Young People's Theatre's James and the Giant Peach is "peachy" or "peachy-keen." And it is. Bright, colourful and zipping along with a wonderful message of empowerment, imagination and chosen family, it is delightful. But it is important to note that it also contains a surprising and sparkling theme that is blatantly, beautifully queer.
The sets, costumes and lights teeter in that sweet spot between extravaganza and let's-put-on-a-show handmade - it is YPT so it is crucial that audiences feel involved, like they could do that, and are in on the joke. But the performances they frame are top of the line. Director Nina Lee Aquino (Scarberia, Banana Boys) has assembled a stellar collection of triple-threats and encouraged them to romp giddily while garnishing each character with subtle but telling depth. They are all wonderful.
Amaka Umeh (Sister Act, Jesus Christ Superstar, This Is For You Anna) is the malevolent Spiker and the irrepressible Amy Lee (Bright Lights, Morro and Jasp: 9 - 5) as the ditzy stooge Sponge, strut away with every scene they appear in - even in cameo: they make hilarious, horrific sharks. Villains are always fun but these two turn the evil aunts into scary song-and-dancers who are irresistible. Their comic timing snaps and their interplay, and asides, are worthy of the greats: from Cruella to Ursula by way of Mommie Dearest.
Shruti Kothari (Rent) is a sexy Spider, Robert Markus a fine Grasshopper, and Jennifer Villaverde lends a warm crystal-clear voice to Ladybug. But they can't compete with the blustering manic force of nature that is Bruce Dow (Sextet, Pig, Of a Monstrous Child). From the moment his Mysterious Man opens his mouth and that powerhouse voice fills the room, the audience is putty in his skilled hands. Fortunately Matt Nethersole as the eponymous James is charming and very easy on the eyes, one can sense Dow holding back, reining it in enough to keep the balance right and the back wall of the theatre from collapsing, but Nethersole is the audience's key to the whole piece.
James's journey - the orphaned child finding home through interaction with eccentrics and evil (there is a direct through line between James and the Giant Peach to Harry Potter by way of The Wizard of Oz) - is magically depicted, but there is another journey bubbling joyfully along. Amir Haidar first appears as Bitsy Botana, a reporter who is obviously a man in drag, the point illustrated by having his sung notes being basso profundo. It is a quick, and very popular with the tots in the audience, gag and didn't sit right at first. But then Haidar reappears as Earthworm and his dual sex status is revealed, earthworms are both male and female. Revealed and revelled in to the point where his second sight gag, as a protesting proudly trans worm, is cathartic comedy. Very well done, Roald Dahl would be ecstatic at the subversive style of it all.
While I am all for sexual/gender catharsis, it also leads to the one quibble with this James and the Giant Peach: the musical theatre catharsis remains just out of reach. The cast works hard, the three-piece band ("The Beetles") are perfectly adequate, but the numbers never build to the 11 o'clock climax needed (or in this case an 8:30ish o'clock number, much of the audience is very young). The songs by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (Smash, La La Land) are perfectly serviceable if meandering, but require bombast, or surging strings, to manufacture enough emotion to compensate for their lack of memorability or drive. YPT can't afford an orchestra but cranking the volume and arrangements might be enough, especially with the voices wielded here.
James and the Giant Peach is a wonderful production, seems to be a YPT pattern emerging, and anyone with a child handy should hustle that tyke to YPT, particularly if the child is, like all children are, feeling inadequate or bullied or insecure. The great joy of Dahl's work is that he doesn't minimize the fear - the parents in James and the Giant Peach are eaten, somewhat graphically in this production, by a rhinoceros - but shows that it can be overcome if one keeps one's sense of humour, imagination, and taste for the absurd, accessible. And that lesson is as good, and almost as much fun, for an adult audience member as it is for a child.
James and the Giant Peach runs 'til Sat, March 18 at Young People's Theatre, 165 Front St E. youngpeoplestheatre.ca