This spring has been ridiculously busy. We are regulars on the DC theater scene for kids and I’ve regretted not making it yet to a few new plays so far this season. So it was with great excitement that we headed to Imagination Stage’s “James and the Giant Peach” on Saturday for the late afternoon performance.
First – some housekeeping. I find that even though Imagination Stage will indicate their shows are appropriate for ages 4 and up, this doesn’t work for my 4-year-old because their performances are long. Now don’t get me wrong; their performances are wonderful and creative but speaking only for my 4-year-old – anything with an intermission, that isn’t a Disney performance including fireworks and 6 foot tall characters – just isn’t going to fly. And Imagination Stage performances always seem to have an intermission, making the production at least 90 minutes long – therefore too long for my youngest. I’ve learned this the hard way, unfortunately. So on Saturday, we invited a neighbor friend who is in Kindergarten and his mom to be our guests. Off we went, two moms, a first grader and a kindergartener. I wasn’t sure what to expect because my first grader is still a little young for a Roald Dahl story, so she wasn’t familiar with the dark humor and unusual twists common with Dahl. Watching her expressions from the onset of the show, I quickly surmised it wouldn’t be a problem whatsoever.
One thing I like about Imagination Stage is they are consistent and loyal to their brand. Their stage sets are rarely extremely elaborate but the quality of the cast and the story line is so strong that the children do use their imaginations and get lost in the story. It always leaves me wondering if really elaborately built out stages are for the adults – I, for one, am a sucker for them – but perhaps it isn’t always necessary? Especially when kids are involved? And of course, this is certainly true for “James and the Giant Peach” or as my friend Leticia, of Tech Savvy Mama, and I joked during Intermission, Austin Powers meets boy-wonder James, in a Peach.
About the hard to miss Austin Powers theme, Janet Stanford directed the production and she framed the story to be set on a film in the 1960s in England. Here’s where you enter the cast of characters supporting James on his epic journey in a peach: the grasshopper, the centipede, the earth worm, the spider and the ladybug. The grasshopper, in particular, in his rockin’ green pants and vest, really channeled his inner-Austin Powers. Second to the grasshopper was one of my favs, the centipede, with his arms of black leather boots, and total Austin Powers hair. I actually really enjoyed this period twist to the show.
James is performed by the only child actor in the production, Ian Berlin, and he is exceptionally talented. For those unfamiliar with the story, James’ life takes a dreadful turn due to the unlikely death of his parents by rhinoceros while shopping in London one day. He ends up living with his two Aunts, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, who, stealing from the British Pantomime, are hilariously performed by two men. Noteworthy, my daughter didn’t realize the Aunts were men, so if you go, ask your kids later if they thought the Aunts were men or women, you might be surprised by their answer.
After a few years of living like Cinderella, waiting on his cruel and unloving Aunts, James crosses path one evening with a troll/witch who offers him magic beans in the form of crocodile tongues. The troll warns him that if he drops or loses them, the magic will spread where it falls, and sure enough, like any young child, he trips and spills the contents of the bag. And so begins his journey. Suddenly, a once dead tree sprouts a peach, a peach that grows an unlikely size, along with the insects who were right there where the magic spilled, and before you know it, the group is off on an adventure, bobbing in the Atlantic, headed towards the U.S.
Imagination Stage deftly incorporates puppetry and multi-media into this performance. There are seagull puppets who James cleverly determines can be tied to the peach and fly the peach across the ocean. There is an octopus puppet who makes an appearance during a James Bond like scene when James dives into the ocean to save his friend, the centipede. And there is use of a large screen to visualize the ocean, the dreaded rhino, among other uses.
Again, Dahl excels at imaginative story-telling and Imagination Stage’s production serves the Dahl mission very well. The story is creative, fun, exciting and funny. Fun fact time: If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself wondering just how many seagulls it would take to fly a giant peach across the Atlantic. Dahl’s story indicates it takes 501 birds but according to the clever work of physics students in Leicester University in England, it would take 2,425,907 seagulls. Another fun fact to share with your kids after they see the show….and after you find out if they realized the Aunts were really hairy men.
Catch James and the Giant Peach before it ends on May 26. I would highly recommend it for anyone in Kindergarten or older. I’d tread carefully for the younger ones. Tickets range from $12-$25 and can be purchased online. There is a sensory-friendly performance on May 12.
Disclosure: Imagination Stage gifted the tickets to me but my opinions here are all my own.