Imagination on Stage | “James and the Giant Peach” at Chance Theatre

James and the Giant Peach (Chance Theatre)Imagination is a wonderful thing. It is imagination that allows us to anthropomorphize animals — that is, it is imagination that allows us to believe animals can talk to us in English.  It is imagination that allows us to believe that nannies can fly on umbrellas, that fairies protect lost boys, and that genies live in lamps. It is imagination that gives us green ogres with talking donkeys, fairy princesses that swim moats, and kings and queens fighting battles. And it is imagination that gives us little girls using their mind to defeat mean schoolteachers, chocolate bars with magic tickets, and giant peaches.

Movies can capture imagination, but in a realistic way. Through movie magic, we’ve seen all sorts of things, but through special effects or animation, it is presented as if it was real. But on stage — ah, on the stage — it is there that real imaginative creativity happens. It is on the stage that movement and expression can create a world, either alone or through the addition of a few simple props: boxes, umbrellas, goggles, and cloaks. On the stage, performance makes miracles happen — miracles that you didn’t believe were possible because you were looking at live people. Yet they are created nevertheless. This is the magic of the stage, the magic of imagination, the magic that is created through a unique human endeavor: live performance in front of an audience. Further, that magic is amplified when you add music, song, and dance to the creative mix.

All of the examples I’ve given above have taken life — and been successful — on the stage. The last three examples — involving school girls, chocolate bars, and peaches — all come from the fertile and slightly subversive mind of Roald Dahl.  They have all been musicalized for the stage. The first two will soon be seen on the stages of Southern California: Matilda is part of the 2018-2019 season at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is part of the 2018-2019 season at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). As for the last, James and the Giant Peach? That’s the subject of this writeup.

For Matilda and Charlie, over the next season, the magic happens on a large stage in a very large building (in a dark room, in an central part of town, filled with people that have paid a lot of money, but that’s a different musical, a class act, so to speak). But it is on the small stage — the intimate stage — that real theatrical magic happens. Large theatres have large budgets and can create large effects. Small theatres are up-and-close, with small budgets, dependent more on the performance and the magic that said performance gives. James and the Giant Peach is the subject of intimate theatrical magic, multiple times a week, on the Fyda-Mar Stage of the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim, at least until March 11. Even though ostensibly this is a “kids” show, you need to go see it and be swept away by its magic.

I first learned about James and the Giant Peach after seeing a production at last week’s venue, the Chromolume Theatre (FB). They had played a song from the song cycle Edges during a pre-show, which set me off in search of a song. There I discovered a number of additional works by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul beyond the shows I knew: Dogfight (which I’d seen first at the Chance) and last year’s Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen (coming to the 2018-2019 season of  the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). There I discovered that, in addition to Edges and some Emmy-winning and nominated movies, they had also done a musicalization of James and the Giant Peach, (with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald (FB)), and that a cast album was available for download, free even (although that website seems to be down as I write this). I listened to the music, and grew to love the energetic and entertaining combination of styles (proving yet again how this composing team are part of the top tier of new composers). Later, while perusing the Chance season announcement last year, I discovered that Chance was starting their 2018 season with a production of James. HOLD dates were created on the calendar, ticklers were set at my various ticketing sites, and I waited for tickets. Once available, I visited the appropriate website, and made plans for the 2 hour drive to Orange County.

So guess where we were yesterday. Guess where you’ll be in the future, if you’re in the area and can get tickets? I’m sure you guessed it.

I’ll note that Chance is doing this as part of their “Theatre for Young Audiences” series, which means the audience is full of kids. Don’t let that deter you. The magic is amplified when you watch the faces of these children enthralled by the stage magic and performance, some I’m sure for the first time. This is what creates life-long lovers of live performances: seeing magic such as this.

Going in, I was actually unfamiliar with the story of James. I had heard the music, but I’ve never read the book nor seen it on the screen. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes the story: “The plot centres on a young English orphan boy who enters a gigantic, magical peach, and has a wild and surreal cross-world adventure with seven magically-altered garden bugs he meets. They set off on a journey to escape from James’ two mean and cruel aunts.”. In the case of the stage show, make that five garden bugs (well, six, if you count Glowworm), but that’s the gist of the story. The story in a, well, peach, so to speak.

James and the Giant Peach (Photo Strip)Under the direction of Darryl B. Hovis (FB),  a team of nine performers make magic happen. With limited resources and facilities — the Fyda-Mar stage is perhaps 12 feet deep, with no fly space for scenery, no real off-stage space, right up against the audience of at most 98 — this team enthralls you the entrance of the first character and a magical face. Hovis clearly worked with the actors to bring out these magical performances, and it works well. Often, the merit of shows shines in a different way on the small stage — one only see the reaction to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert currently on stage at the tiny Celebration Theatre, and contrast it to the production at the Pantages to understand what I mean (I recall a similar effect seeing Gypsy at an intimate theatre). Hovis makes this work … spectacularly … on the small stage. Through the performances he drew out of the team, and the imagination of the scenic design and properties, he executed a vision that had both the adults and the kids watching in rapture. (at least, that’s what I saw on the faces at my performance).

The first performer we see — he of the magical face — is Tyler Marshall (FB) as Ladahlord. This character is not in the book. Ladahlord serves as a master of ceremonies or narrator,  moving the story along, and portraying various minor characters throughout the story. He also has the responsibility of handling the main song of the show, which keeps reappearing: “Right Before Your Eyes”. Marshall has a wonderful singing voice, a remarkably expressive face, and just draws your eye to him whenever he was on stage.

We next meet our main character, James, portrayed by Christopher Diem (FB). DIem captures James’ boyish spirit, energy, and fear quite well. He has a good singing voice, and is believable as James in his interactions.

The villains of the piece are Spiker and Sponge, James’ aunts and only living relatives after his parents are killed. They are portrayed by Shannon Page (FB) and Holly Jeanne (FB), respectively. These are roles that require a level of overplaying — they can’t be played realistically, but too over the top and they become caricatures. Page and Jeanne capture the overplay well, and for the most part, restrain it as appropriate while keeping the fun. The roles are intentionally overdone in the songs, which the performers do spot on (but which also disguises their real voices). As could be seen when the autograph session started at the end of the show, these two are just having fun with the roles.

The remainder of the cast play various small roles — James’ parents, other adults, and handling puppets of various insects, until they transform into the main magically-transformed insects when the Giant Peach is realized. As the larger insects, this team — Erica Schaeffer (FB) [Spider]; Richard Comeau (FB) [Green Grasshopper]; Miguel Cardenas (FB) [Centipede]; Rachael Oliveros Catalano (FB) [Ladybug]; and Alex Allen (FB) [Earthworm] — is mesmerizing. In this group, my eyes were first drawn to Schaeffer and Catalano. Schaeffer reminds me quite a bit of another excellent chance performer,  Kim Dalton (FB). She had an incredibly expressive face and movement style (especially as Spider), and I noticed her even in the background of scenes as she continued in character. Truly fun to watch, with a very nice singing voice. Catalano had a different, darker look, but she was a delight as Ladybug in her interactions with both James, Centipede, and Grasshopper. Strong singing, strong performance. On the male side, Comeau was outstanding as Grasshopper, exuding a warm personality and having a really really warm and nice singing voice. The remaining two folks were Cardenas’ Centipede and Allen’s Earthworm. Cardenas plays Centipede as what the other insects describe as a pest; however, his performance shines later during the rescue scenes. Similarly, Allen gets to portray Earthworm as someone living in fear; he comes into his own in the seagull scene (where he as a great performance).

It is at this point where I would normally introduce the band, under the music direction of James Liebson. But there is no band credited, and the music is seemingly pre-recorded. If there was a flaw in this production, this is it. Theatre needs live music; the audience needs to see that music comes from something other than a computer. They need to see people playing instruments, with the real-life variations that creep into such performances. However, I do understand the restrictions of a young artist program (as well as the space limitations) that force compromises such as this. At least the credit of a music director means that this is a Chance pre-recording of local artists (uncredited), which is better that a generic recording provided by the musical’s license holder.

With performance and movement, when stirred with music, comes dance. Working with the director, as Choreographer and Assistant Director, was Christine Hinchee (FB). Hinchee worked with Hovis to bring some remarkable dance and movement to the confined space of the Fyda-Mar Stage, and it worked very well. It certainly had the audience mesmerized.

This brings us to the remaining creative and production credits. I think one of the true stars of this show is Megan Hill (FB), the scenic and properties designer. Looking at her resume, Hill has been responsible for some of the most creative shows we’ve seen at the Chance — Loch Ness and Claudio Quest.  Her design is no less imaginative here, with simple props used to create the peach, simple screens for projections, and cute properties to suggest and create seagulls, sharks, and the Empire State Building. Her designs and properties interact with Aaron McGee (FB)’s puppets, McLeod Benson (FB)’s projections, and Alex McClain (FB)’s costumes to create James’ world. The team creates theatrical magic.  Supporting this team was Darryl B. Hovis (FB)’s sound design and McLeod Benson (FB)’s lighting designs. Other key production credits include: Courtny Greenough (FB) [Stage Manager]; Oanh Nguyen (FB) [Artistic Director]; and the large list of Chance staff and production team members.

James and the Giant Peach continues at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim, at least until March 11. This is an incredibly imaginative and fun production. well worth seeing. Even though it is part of the Theatre for Young Audiences, it will delight young and old, and veteran audiences will appreciate the rapture and delight on the faces of the young audience members as they watch theatre that will instill a lifelong love. Tickets are available through the Chance Website. Discount tickets may be available on Goldstar (although they are currently sold out); I don’t see them at either TodayTix or LA Stage Alliance.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

February concludes with this afternoon’s show: Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week. This enables us to see a remounting of Leslie Jones starring in Prez – The Lester Young Story that weekend. This is followed on the second weekend with the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB) and the MRJ Man of the Year Dinner. The next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend brings only the joint TBH Brotherhood/MoTAS Mens Seder. The last weekend of March is currently open.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).

Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power  at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB).  The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open. June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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2 Replies to “Imagination on Stage | “James and the Giant Peach” at Chance Theatre”

  1. Thank you for your kind words. I am so glad you enjoyed our work. We had a blast putting it on, and I am glad you pointed out that it is not just for kids. We are trying to produce works that speak to children and adults that create a basis of dialogue between them. As to the music, I agree that live music is better than canned. However, we were not given the option with the TYA version through MTI. Alas, I guess you can’t have everything. I hope to see you at Chance for future shows.

    1. I’m sorry you weren’t given the option for live, although I don’t know where you would have hidden them :-). It’s a schlep down to Chance, but we typically get there for 1-2 shows a year. If only you were closer ….

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