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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

James and the Giant Peach
Arden Theatre Company

James and the Giant Peach
Harum Ulmer, Jr. and
Stephanie English

The Arden's new production of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach has its good points and its not so good points. What's best about it is the design, especially the computerized video projections by Jorge Cousineau that are among the most spectacular ever seen on a local stage. Unfortunately, nearly everything else about the production is disappointing. Two years ago, director Whit MacLaughlin gave us a wonderful, heartwarming production of another Dahl story, The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)—but this time around, McLaughlin's lethargic production of James will likely entertain only the youngest members of the audience.

James tells the tale of an orphaned boy who lives with two wicked aunts. Forced to work hours of hard labor, James is lonely and dejected, but he finds deliverance from his misery thanks to a group of insects who become his unlikely friends. Eventually James and his friends sail across the ocean on a giant magical peach, where he faces even more challenges.

The Arden's adaptation (with a script by David Wood, who also adapted The BFG) spends too much time on the bleakness of James' upbringing—and his redemption, when it comes, is too fanciful to be satisfying. At the end, James tells the audience that the moral of the story is that even the loneliest of children can find friendship—yet the insect characters are so lacking in charm that James never seems to warm up to them, and neither did I.

Still, James William Ijames is nicely earnest as the hero, and the supporting cast members work hard to bring life to the outlandish characters. I especially liked Harum Ulmer, Jr. (who hams it up nicely in the drag role of James' Aunt Spiker), Brian Osborne (who plays the Centipede as a jaded hipster) and Frederick Andersen (as a cynical Earthworm). There are also some inventive costumes (notably the Centipede's coat covered with shoes), courtesy of Christal Weatherly, and rich scenic design by Matt Saunders (the witty props for an undersea sequence are especially nice). James Sugg's original songs are pleasant but undistinguished.

James is a cute production, but its storytelling drags so much that it never really comes to life. There's plenty to please the eye, but not enough to captivate the heart.

James and the Giant Peach runs through February 8, 2009 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $14 to $30 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.

James and the Giant Peach
Adapted by David Wood from the novel by Roald Dahl
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
Assistant Director... Meghan Walsh
Scenic Design... Matt Saunders
Costume Design... Christal Weatherly
Lighting Design... Brian J. Lilienthal
Video and Sound Design... Jorge Cousineau
Composer/Music Director... James Sugg
Musical Arranger/Associate Sound Design... Daniel Kluger

Cast:
Grasshopper... Oberon K.A. Adjepong
Earthworm... Frederick Andersen
Aunt Sponge/Newscaster... Stephanie English
James... James William Ijames
Centipede... Brian Osborne
Spider... Ceal Phelan
Ladybug... Amanda Schoonover
Aunt Spiker/Newscaster... Harum Ulmer, Jr.


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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