My friends and I grew up on Roald Dahl, and “James and the Giant Peach” was the first chapter-book many of us, including myself, read. As children, Dahl inspired in us a taste for the gothic that we were too young enough to recognize, and which First Stage’s production of Dahl’s most famous novel, adapted by Timothy Allen McDonald, admirably reproduces while still maintaining the purity and innocence of childhood. In order to accomplish this, director Matt Daniels employs an eclectic mix of theatrical traditions and blends them seamlessly: The Aunts (Amber Nicole Dilger and Jenny Wasanek)—are hilarious and seems to play on the British pantomime tradition, the shadow puppetry is dark but not frightening, and the musical theatre, which culminates in Luke Brotherhood’s portrayal of James “James” is lively and traditional.
As to Brotherhood’s performance, well what can I say? Although at the beginning (of opening night), he sometimes struggled to hit the high notes of Ben Pasek and Justin Hall’s incredibly moving score (“Everywhere That You Are” made me tear up), Brotherhood was nonetheless one of the most gifted child actors (certainly the most gifted of that age) that I have ever seen perform, and by the end of the night he was very much the titular star of the acting and the music. He infused rich meaning into every glance, line, and note, and it felt entirely natural, especially the way he responded to the older characters actions, injunctions, and attitudes with emotional intelligence was particularly impressive.
The story concerning two wicked Aunts and their nephew James, who inhabits a Giant Peach with numerous charming insects, in an enchanted Journey across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City may sound impossible to stage, but Daniels manages it with the help of vibrant costumes (Melissa Torchia), minimalist scenic design (Kristin Ellert), deft lighting (Jason Fassl), and intelligent sound design (Matt Whitmore) Then, there is the cast. Each actor, including the ensemble of young performers (Malia Westlake, Amira Elsfay, Celeste Hermnas, and Madeline McNicholas turned are highly charismatic performances along with their adult equity-level colleagues. As to these, “Beth Mulkerron” as the warm and sophistidcated Ladybug, Richard Pendzich as the griping, cynical, centipede, and Doug Clemmons as the dapper Grasshopper particular stood-out.
There has never been a show that first stage has done that has not impressed me in some way. Whether it is listening to young performers answers talk back questions in an incredibly professional manner, watching the mix of young and old actors produced a show that was palatable to children and adults alike, or the gifted and fresh adaptions of well-known stories into material that has something for parents and their kids. This production combines all of the great facets of first stage and is sure to make scores of young children fall in love with theatre, and hopefully help some adults rediscover it.
The Play runs through November 15th at the Todd Wehr Auditorium at the Marcus Center For the Performing Arts located at 292 N. Water Street in Milwaukee. Performances times vary but can be viewed at www.firststage.org. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 414 273-7206. There are different casts for the week-end performances that take place on
Saturdays at 1 p.m.