Gail Becker and Nolan Meland in Children's Theater of Madison's James and the Giant Peach
There are magical crocodile tongues on the loose in the Playhouse at Overture Center, and if you're not careful, they might enchant a fruit tree in your backyard. This is exactly what happened in James and the Giant Peach, the newest production by Children's Theater of Madison (through Oct. 26).
Based on Roald Dahl's classic tale, the play introduces audiences to evil aunts, mysterious spells, a garden full of talking insects, an enormous piece of fruit. James, played affably by Nolan Meland, is the little boy at the center of the story who is looking for friends his own age, and an escape from the miserable life he has led ever since (spoiler alert) his parents were run over by a rhinoceros.
Directed by Patrick Holland, CTM's production is visually stunning. The fantastic tale is set inside a vintage circus, complete with candy cane-striped tent poles, a crow's nest, strings of lights, and three concentric rings. This nostalgic, beautifully realized set (conceived by designer Keith Pitts) invites the characters to play freely in a place where spectacle, daring feats and the unexpected are the norm. Monica Cliff's costumes reflect a steampunk vibe, putting the proper grasshopper (David Miller) in a long green waistcoat, a top hat and goggles; a gloomy, saxophone-playing earthworm (Shawn Goodman Jones) in a long brown trench coat and scarf; and the friendly, helpful spider (Miranda Beadle) in a black-and-white-striped satin dress, delightfully accented with red ballet shoes. Erica Halverson's centipede is dressed in a white satin gymnast's romper, covered with her beloved boots, to represent her myriad legs.
The play offers lots of other sight gags, clever props and spectacle to keep the audience entertained. The show makes great use of a chorus of young performers who constantly morph into peach-eating sharks, then menacing cloud men pelting our heroes with hailstones, then stage hands at the circus, literally pumping up the peach to make it grow before our eyes. Shadow puppets and projections on a large circular screen help illustrate the group's journey across the Atlantic, to New York City. Adding to the atmosphere at this unusual big top, live musicians accompany several songs, performed capably by Halverson and Miller.
All of this hoopla will probably distract younger viewers from Richard R. George's dull adaptation of Dahl's rich and exciting book. Filled with long passages of narration and fragmented dialogue, the script doesn't give the actors or the audience much to work with. Likewise, the adult cast’s generic performances did little to lend their characters dimension, or even differentiate them from one another.
At the end of the story, James lives happily in his peach-pit house in Central Park, surrounded by friends. While no one would want to deprive the adorable boy his happy ending, audiences would share much more in the triumph if they had truly been taken on his magical journey.