Britisher Roald Dahl was a great and prolific storyteller, particularly for children, in the 20th century. His fantasies, major ones such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” as well as many shorter tales of mischievous creatures, have both charmed and frightened generations of readers. Many a kid, after a Dahl story at bedtime, has checked the closet or looked under the bed for lurking Oompa-Loompas or maybe a Whangdoodle or a Hornswoggler. Doesn’t hurt to look.
Dahl had an adventurous life, one that included a stint in the British Royal Air Force, achieving “ace” status as a pilot during WWII. He also worked in intelligence and other war effort agencies before launching his writing career for children and adults. The Dahl canon includes works for film, television (many collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock), plays, poetry and a lengthy list of fiction and nonfiction stories for all ages.
Still popular is the strange, some say macabre, “James and the Giant Peach,” the 1961 Dahl chronicle of young James Henry Trotter, an orphan living with two of the meanest, slimiest caretakers in literature, the cackling Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. James’ parents, while shopping one day, were eaten by a savage rhino. And this was before we knew about the perils of venturing out on Black Friday.
One day, James meets a man who gives the boy a bag full of crocodile tongues. Not your average gift, but when James accidentally spills the contents, weird things begin. A fruitless tree in the yard produces a peach that grows to great size. When loosened, it crushes everything in its path – including Sponge and Spiker, to everyone’s delight – and lurches out to sea. James is aboard with five anthropomorphic insect companions: a grasshopper, a ladybug, a centipede, a spider and an earthworm.
“James and the Giant Peach,” Dahl’s fantasy adapted for the stage by Richard R. George, reprised by Theatre of Youth Company and directed knowingly once more by Meg Quinn, begins in earnest here as the unusual passengers embark on a scary trans-Atlantic crossing, battling storms and sharks and strange shapes, a huge and hungry bat and seagulls that go from foes to lifesavers. A ditty or two momentarily brightens the voyage, but there is crisis after crisis, panic reigns and it looks bleak.
But James is inventive – Dahl never made him a genius, just resourceful – and the humanlike insects (good-natured, jealous, motherly, grandfatherly, braggarts, hopeful here, pessimistic there) marvel at their luck and are thankful for James, their hero.
The peach makes landfall, so to speak, impaling itself on the Empire State Building’s peak. America! Whew! James is feted, grows straight and tall and the insects fare well: media darlings, endorsements. In the movie version, the centipede runs for mayor of New York. Now, that could happen.
This TOY remake is a wonder in many ways: magical sets by Kenneth Shaw, full of gears and levers, see-through scrims, sea creatures on walls, a jungle-gym, a swaying, enormous peach. Victorian costumes are eye-catching, the insects colorful and detailed. TOY’s entire technical crew should take a well-deserved bow for its work – as should the agile cast.
Kurt Guba narrates and maintains the pace and takes a role here and there; Simon Blu Randle is a very likable James, clever, thoughtful, a peacekeeper. It’s excellent work. The insects are Tilke Hill, Marc-Jon Filippone, Arin Lee Dandes, Adam Rath and Linda Stein, who also brings a new level of repulsiveness to Aunt Sponge.
It’s a challenge to the cast and audience alike, this “James and the Giant Peach.” But TOY has once again found the secret to combining the light and dark appeal that is the legacy of Dahl.
Three and one-half stars
What: “James and the Giant Peach”
When: Through Feb. 10
Where: Theatre of Youth at the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St.
Info: : 884-4400, www.theatreofyouth.org