Monday, October 7, 2013

James and the Giant Peach—NW Children’s Theatre—NW Portland

The Low Creatures

This classic story by British writer Roland Dahl and adapted for the stage by Richard R. George is directed by Sarah Jane Hardy (NWCT’s Artistic Director) and John Ellingson.  It plays through October 27th at their site at 1819 NW Everett St.  For more information go to or call 503-222-4480.

The lowest of the creatures may occupy the highest of the spaces.  Environmentally, the centipedes, spiders, earthworms, grasshoppers and ladybugs are important additions to our cycle of life on earth.  Not only that, but the costumes were created from odds and ends that would normally be discarded.  Bravo to NWCT for involving themselves in educating children and adults alike in these important endeavors.

Dahl was a famous British writer and his classic story is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Willy Wonka… in the two film versions—Wilder’s being the best by far).  This story, like Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, has adult overtones as well.  Both title characters are transported to a magical land where they learn some important lessons about the world in which we all live, imaginary and real.

The adaptation by George is good to a point but falls short of the book’s power.  The couple of songs, although well performed by John Ellingson and company, don’t really have the impact they should.  This is not the fault of this company’s production, which is very satisfying, but of the stage adaption.

The story is of James (Jonathan Pen) being orphaned at an early age, as his parents (Leif Schmit and Stephanie Roessler) were killed by a charging Rhino.  He is then raised by his maiden aunts, Sponge (Melanie Moseley) and Spiker (Tai Sammons), who are less than friendly toward him.  He is a slave for them and that’s an end to it. 

But enter an old man (Joshua James Hooper) who entrusts him to take care of a bag of very valuable insects, which James  promptly loses and they escape onto a nearby peach tree.  One peach on this tree grows to such an enormous size that the aunts charge money to see it.  James discovers a way into the peach, partly for the adventure and party to escape his demonic wardens. 

Subsequently the peach falls from the tree, rolls downhill and crushes his two aunts and makes its way to the sea.  Inside, James is awakened to a world he never knew, in which he meets a multi-limbed Centipede (John Ellingson), a vivacious ladybug (Madeleine Delaplane), a curvaceous spider (Annie Willis), a wise-old grasshopper (Zero Feeney) and a pessimistic earthworm (Sam Burns).  These will be his teachers, as he theirs.  They impress upon him the importance of their existence and he becomes their rescuer.

Riding the waves as a way to travel is not so bad, unless you are pursued by sharks, willing to eat their through the peach to savor the small morsels inside.  But, a plan to snag some seagulls and have them fly the peach across the sea, works for a time, until they encounter the cloud men who blast them with cold and thunder and they are forced to cut their losses and descend post haste.  The peach is skewered onto the spire of the Empire State building and they are all rescued and go on to greater glories.

The real magic of this production is in the ingenious costumes and make-up (Jen LaMastra and John Ellingson).  They are absolutely stunning!  The intricate details in designing and constructing these marvelous creations is nothing short of a masterpiece.  Not only are the costumes/make-up of the insects fantastic but also the two aunts, one with a plastered sardonic smile and the other puffed-up like a hot air balloon.  My only questions would be how in the heck did they walk in these in these contrivances and how long did it take for them to transform themselves physically.  Bravo to all the miracle-workers!

Ellingson is in fine form to perform the two songs but, as mentioned, they are lacking in the writing end.  He reminds me, in an acting-comedic style, to a young Paul Lynde.  Delaplane is wonderful as the eccentric ladybug, emulating, perhaps, a young Angela Landsbury.  Willis is a fitting, as the slithering spider, a young Mary Tyler Moore, maybe.  Burns is appropriately morass, as the pouting, myopic worm, akin to a young Arnold Stang.  And Feeney is super as the clever old grasshopper, cloning a young Robin Williams.

Sammons and Moseley are deliciously devilish as the two Aunts.  Pen is a delight as James, presenting fittingly the downtrodden hero.  And Annika Cutler as the Narrator is very articulate and clean in her delivery, keeping the story moving and filling in the blanks.  These two youngest performers of the troupe definitely show promise for a possible future career in the performing arts.

Hardy and Ellingson have done a nice job of giving each of the characters a very distinct personality and easily and simply transporting the story from one locale to another.  It should be mentioned that these two individuals also teach at the school, which is worth looking into as an exciting avenue to building character and confidence in our Youth.

I recommend this show, especially for the excellent costumes and make-up, and the amazing performances of the actors.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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