The theater is one of the most magical places imaginable. Few people can’t be captivated by a well-executed song and dance, and children are certainly not among them. However, pulling off a performance that can truly be enjoyed by all ages is a real feat. “James and the Giant Peach” at the Omaha Community Playhouse does just that.
The plot of “James” isn’t a departure from typical Roald Dahl fare: an unbelievably unfortunate child’s luck turns into a whimsical adventure. This musical, based on Dahl’s book of the same name, follows James (Maddie Smith) as he’s moved from an orphanage to the house of his rotten aunts. The aunts (Jodi Vaccaro as Spiker and Sara Mattix as Sponge) plan to use James for their pickpocket schemes and as free labor. Narrator and magician Ladah lord (Aaron Mann) appears to James, promising him a potion to bestow greatness. James drops the spell on a peach tree. The giant peach that grows attracts giant bugs, of course, who befriend James and escape the aunts by rolling the peach into the sea.
Ladahlord swears the show is based on a true story.
Every step of the adventure is punctuated by excellent songs. Most of the songs are catchy and upbeat, while a few are more emotional, as if to say, “It’s okay to be sad sometimes, but look for the happy.” The first song of the show, “Right Before Your Eyes,” lit up the room by having the entire cast, including a dozen or so children, help Ladahlord summarize the plot. Everyone was having fun here.
Almost every song exploded into a company number, but somehow, tiny Smith demanded attention. The sixth-grader moved effortlessly from belting somber orphan ballads to playing against Playhouse veterans. James wrestles with loss, self-esteem issues and bullying. Smith takes us on that journey and even dons a solid British accent. She blew me away.
The insects (Kyle Avery as Grasshoper, Sarah Ebke as Ladybug, Steve Krambeck as Centipede, UNO student Zhomontee Watson as Earthworm, and Samantha Zarders as Spider) are only in half the show and only appear in scenes together. They pop off some catchy numbers and make great use of their on-stage chemistry, but the script gives them the short end of the stick. Each character gives us just a taste of fun personality that I would have loved to see more of.
The “aunts every child will fear,” Spiker and Sponge, deserved their hefty amount of stage time. They’re slimy, pompous, self-obsessed and amazing villains. “Property of Spiker and Sponge” featured the sisters picking a crowd’s pockets in a well-choreographed slight-of-hand bonanza. “I Got You,” a song about sisterly love, reminded me of the nastiest versions of my own sisters. Over-the-top villains with no redeeming qualities are exactly what I want in a children’s show.
The show runs a bit over two hours (with an intermission), but no children in the audience acted up. The fast pace and short time between songs kept everyone’s attention. Everything from the costumes to the sets, to the on-stage handling of props drips with whimsy and an invitation to imagine. A few faster lines were hard to understand under the British accents, but Ladahlord popped up between scenes to sing short refreshers. “James and the Giant Peach” is a great show for kids or anyone looking to laugh with something lighthearted.
“James and the Giant Peach” runs from March 2 to March 25 at the Omaha Community Playhouse. For tickets and pricing, call 402-553-0800 or visit their website, www.omahaplayhouse.com.