Monday, May 16, 2016

James and the Giant Peach—Newmark Theatre—downtown Portland

Just Peachy!

Oregon Children’s Theatre presents this classical story and new musical, based on the book by Roald Dahl and directed by Stan Foote, musical direction by Jeffrey Childs and choreography by Kemba Shannon.  It is playing at the Newmark space, 1111 SW Broadway, through May 29th.  Go to their site at or call 503-228-9571.

This is certainly an oft-done tale on the stages and very popular with children.  It is a story of teaching one respect for Nature and especially the “lowliest” creatures in our existence, the insects.  And, like all good fairy tales of this sort, we have our hero, usually a child, in the mold of Dorothy from Kansas, who had to go “over the rainbow” to appreciate what she had back home, or Wendy who yearned to see what the distant stars held for her but eventually found her way back home.  And so, to the “James” (Aida Valentine) of our story, an orphan just looking for…you got it…home.  Notice the common theme?

When he is whisked off to his only surviving relatives, two greedy, maiden aunts, Spiker (Stephanie Leppert) and Sponge (Victoria Blake), who have a side business of picking pockets, but the attraction of monies coming from the state to take care of James is too good to resist.  He is immediately put to work as a slave, ordering, among other things, to cut down a giant peach tree in their yard.  It seems that the aunts have tried everything to kill vegetation around their property, which means killing insects, too.

But when a Giant Peach appears on their tree, through some magic from a sort-of carnival barker, Ladahlord (Gerrin Delane Mitchell), they decide people would pay money to see it.  But this self-same magic also allows James to become the size of insects and so he enters the peach, where it suddenly rolls downhill and into the ocean, where James’s journey of discovery begins.

Inside the peach he meets the demure ladybug (Danielle Valentine), who is a bit sweet on the adventurous Grasshopper (Matthew Brown).  There is also the scaredy-cat Earthworm (James Dixon), who’s frightened of his own shadow; the calculating Spider (Claire Rigsby), always weighing the odds; and the petulant Centipede (Gary Norman), antagonizing everyone.  This motley crew will brave hunger, turbulent waves, sharks (Xavier Warner and Allison Parker), almost being beset by an ocean liner and flying.  And in the end will discover the true meaning of Family and Home.  And, as for the Aunts, they do get their just rewards, as they encounter, as Mrs. Doubtfire might say, “a drive-by fruiting.”

The play is low-tech and presented in a storytelling style, like many from others theatres this season.  My favorite among the songs are “Shake It Up,” “Floatin’ Along,” and “Plump and Juicy.”  Foote, as always, has chosen a first-rate cast and keeps the play moving along at a comfortable pace.  Among the actors, young Valentine, as James, who is in almost every scene, handles the acting and singing with signs of a true pro.  Mitchell, as the mysterious, Ladahlord, has energy to spare as he careens through the scenes like a runaway locomotive.  And Norman, as the pouty, Centipede, is wonderful, someone you want to dislike but can’t help but having a soft spot for.  He is a gem.

As mentioned above, the themes in this are similar to Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Oliver Twist, et. al., it is a search for the true meaning of Home and Family.  Perhaps that’s why these stories still appeal to adults, too, as they may be searching for their lost childhoods, when home and family were the havens that kept you safe.  Not so much now with the intrusion of the electronic media.  But, perhaps, when all is said and done, those yearnings are really not so far away, but buried within, just waiting to be rediscovered.

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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