Not Just the Best of Kansas City Theatre - the Best Theatre Anywhere!
James and the Giant Peach
The Coterie Theatre
The opening night performance of "James and the Giant Peach" directed by Ernie Nolan at the Coterie Theatre shows just how imaginative, talented, and entertaining theatre can be. Based on the classic children's book by British author Roald Dahl (of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" fame), the play centers on a young boy who is orphaned when his parents are run down and eaten by a rogue rhinoceros in the streets of London. As a result, James is sent to live with two horrible aunts–appropriately named Spiker and Sponge–played exquisitely and to the hilt by the talented and very funny Ron Megee and Matt Weiss.
This is one of my favorite children's tales, and having recently re-read it, I was very curious how the Coterie would manage pulling it off on stage. Conveying the plot requires a tree that sprouts a peach that grows to gargantuan proportions. Parts of the story take place inside the peach, and when it is detached from its mooring on the tree branch the wayward fruit rolls across the English countryside on a wild journey to the sea. The second half of its odyssey is across the Atlantic ocean; the peach bobs along on the surface of the water until attacked by sharks. Afterwards, James and his friends attach it to thousands of seagulls and take to the sky, eventually touching down in New York City and ending their journey in Central Park.
Through the magic of theatre and the ingenuity of the designers, Dahl's original story truly comes to life in the best way. We actually see James's parents pursued by the ferocious, hungry rhino and hear their inglorious aftermath. We see the peach grow and are able to venture to its interior (complete with furniture and a quaint sign that says "Home, Sweet Peach"). We roll across the landscape of England, bob across the ocean, brave a shark attack, and fly through the air tethered to seagulls. Much of this is accomplished through the imaginative use of scrims that project animated scenes as well as live-action silhouettes. Credit should be given to lighting designer Art Kent and projection designer Dorian Kofinas for pulling this off so masterfully. In addition to a main scrim used for projecting animated scenes and live-action silhouettes of the performers during several poignant moments on their journey inside the peach, a smaller scrim positioned at the top of the stage shows the peach, in miniature silhouette, rolling across England, off a dock, and splashing into the ocean.
The animations and projections in the show are used in conjunction with creative and functioning set pieces created by designer Erin Walley. Flats representing iconic landmarks in the Big Apple (Macy's, the Statue of Liberty, and the Chrysler Building) help to set the scene and are used creatively by the performers during the beginning and concluding action. There is also a huge peach pit "house" with windows and a door situated in the audience, which (from where I sat) appeared to actually be used by the two aunts and James (it doubles as his "shack" in the early part of the play). Two large flats on the stage also represent the peach. Its exterior, partially viewed, is gated by the greedy aunts to keep onlookers from viewing it without paying admission, and this quickly switches to display the peach's very cozy interior.
The original story was published in 1961, and the play's design elements capture and preserve the wonderful retro feel of that time period (a motif that is increasingly popular today in television series such as "Mad Men" and "Pan Am"); this is immediately evident in the Ushers' costumes worn at the beginning of the play and later in the sailors' uniforms during the ocean scene. The costumes for this production, designed by Lauren Roark, were co-created with UMKC Theatre; they are not only imaginative but classy and true to the period. Creating a ladybug costume with some polka dot material would be fairly easy; however, this Ladybug (Enjoli Gavin) is a glorious, very fashionable twist on what could have been a very run-of-the-mill costume.
The other costumes just as creatively capture the story's fantastic plot. The violin-playing Grasshopper (Walter Coppage) wears a costume replete with a top hat and tails that fits his character; purposefully "fussy" and glitzy, it features many shades of green and yellow combined in interesting patterns that catch the eye and are a treat to view. The costume for the stick-like Aunt Spiker (who also has a huge pimple and delightfully cartoonish overbite) is a fantastically-avant-garde homage to Cruella Deville, Norma Desmond, Joan Crawford (and maybe even "Alice in Wonderland"), and the fat suit worn by Aunt Sponge complements the physical contrast between the two and makes Matt Weiss a delightfully ponderous behemoth. The Centipede (also played by Weiss), a rather rough-and-tumble "pest" as he delights in calling himself, features 42 legs and pairs of shoes that move when he does. The mottled pink Earthworm (Megee) wears a purposely shapeless, segmented, tubular outfit and a hat that looks like the upper expanding sections of an insect (because he is, of course, blind, he also wears groovy dark glasses and carries a cane).
Finally, the purple and black costume for the Spider (Molly Denninghoff) is covered in eye-catching, patterned sequins and features an enormous bustle (giving her the impression of a real spider) that dispenses thread when needed at crucial moments in the play. It is clear that the costume designer and creators diligently researched the appearance of the actual insects represented in the play and then used their own imagination to run with it.
Working with such a great story and such inspirational design elements, it's not surprising that all of the performances were top notch. James is played by two different actors (Ryan Emmons and Marshall Hopkins) on alternating nights. Hopkins' performance captures the feel of Dahl's original character (at least to my sensibilities), and his British accent and physical appearance (complemented with a pork pie hat, plaid knickers, and round glasses) reminded me of Harry Potter. The rest of the cast takes on dual (and in some cases triple) roles throughout the play. The combination of American (some distinctly New York), English, and even French accents used by the different characters in the play give this eclectic group of companions a distinctly cosmopolitan feel. It must have been a challenge for each performer to determine what kind of personality (and nationality!) his or her insect would have, but their attitudes and behavior, expressed so vividly in Dahl's novel and transformed into the script by David Wood, must have certainly helped.
My six-year-old guest thoroughly enjoyed the show, even though he remarked on a couple of semi-scary moments when James gets a carpet bag of crocodile tongues from the Mysterious Man and when the peach is attacked by animated sharks. Perhaps the elevated sound level at these points might have contributed to this (instead of covering his eyes at these points in the play, my young companion covered his ears). There are also a couple of very fun (and sarcastic) musical numbers; however, the pace of the lines is very quick and it was a little challenging to clearly make out the words over the music. Aside from this, "James and the Giant Peach" at the Coterie is a real treat for young and old. It is not only a faithful homage to a classic children's novel, but also (sorry, I just couldn't resist...) a real peach of a show!