January 4, 2020
‘James and the Giant Peach’ rolls onto Kate Goldman stage
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
James and the Giant Peach is a trustworthy classic to give its Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre clientele. With its strong literary foundation (all Kate Goldman shows at the venerable Des Moines Playhouse are based on children’s literature), this Roald Dahl fanciful tale is ripe for the creative abilities of director/designer Nicholas Amundson.
The Kate Goldman Children’s Theatre has become one of the Upper Midwest’s greatest venues for introducing newbies to the wonder of live theatrical performance. Parents, grandparents and friends bring young children to these shows for two reasons. First, each production is based on a book. This gives adults the opportunity to share time before seeing a show by diving into the book and sharing the story, its characters and its messages before heading to the theater. Second, their vicarious experience of sharing the joy of live theatre never gets old. It’s rejuvenating.
Dahl’s colorful and imaginative tale of friendship and adventure is brought to vibrant life under the direction of Amundson. With this space having no traditional proscenium and curtain, guests arrive and immediately enter into the world of the play. This immersive conditioning sets the tone for things to come, and gives adults a pre-show opportunity to chat with young guests about the environment created for the show.
Taking some liberties with the familiar story line, Amundson begins with a tour group visiting the now-famous peach pit home of James and his friends in New York City’s Central Park, which is the ending of the original story. The first actors on stage break the fourth wall between stage and audience, encouraging responses. Oddly, this connectivity was not continued in the show. The tour group listens intently as James recounts his journey from England, and the tale reboots at the onset of the traditional start of the story. There were some inconsistencies in the flow, however, that clouded the clarity, such as blurring the lines between reality and suspension of disbelief. The unnatural growth of the peach was one such example.
In the title role – James, that is…not the peach – Carson Klein is spirited, poised and articulate, giving the audience a solid key thread to follow. He would have been heard better had he used better projection at times. His band of friends each brings delightful traits, amplified to perfection. Old-Green-Grasshopper (given warm gravitas by Aaron Price), Miss Spider (with Samantha Beard’s spritely energy), Centipede (Michael Bundy II delighting with his math-challenged animation), Ladybird (portrayed with a genteel elegance by Julie Howland), and Earthworm (capturing all of his glass-half-empty curmudgeoniness by Andrew Lee) provide a textured foundation for this band of unintended adventurers. Special kudos to the over-the-top wickedness of Aunt Sponge (given rumbling, greedy malevolence by Kristina Linnane) and Aunt Spiker (wrapped in viperish vanity by Kerrie Lee). Plus, the rest of the ensemble provided powerful support in a variety of roles, from crowds to ocean to enhancements.
Amundson’s design provides flexibility in traversing the arc of the story while giving plenty of movement space for his cast. Angela Lampe’s costumes are another stellar addition in her well-feathered cap. A true creative bonus is the sound design and composition by Meredith Toebben, giving the audience a unique audio enhancement to the show.
There were some confusing moments, such as when Price doubled as the Mayor of New York City. In consulting with a first-timer, the young patron commented about these confusions. Her chaperones helped straighten out the story. She did energetically comment about how much she liked the show, especially as her “first play ever.” She added how scary she thought the rhinoceros was at the beginning (in depicting the demise of James’ parents). This reviewer smiled at her parents and grandparents who accompanied her, as an extended conversation was bound to happen after the show.
That is what the magic of theater should include. Just as with a magician, discussion of what was just seen should happen. Once the final bows have taken place, enjoy the lively post-show conversations that will become part of everyone’s journey to the Kate Goldman. James and the Giant Peach is a marvelous journey to plan. Book your trans-Atlantic trip now.
The Culture Buzz theatre reviews are written by professional critics, to inform and enlighten. To receive weekly newsletters, email TheCultureBuzz@gmail.com or visit www.theculturebuzz.com. The Culture Buzz is a weekly broadcast/streaming arts & entertainment show, airing Wednesdays 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM Central Time on KFMG 98.9 FM and streaming at www.kfmg.org.