REVIEW: OCT’s “James and the Giant Peach”

Perhaps more than any other children’s author, Roald Dahl had an uncanny ability to tap into the mystical, strange, and subtly dark elements of childhood. And perhaps no other work of his does this quite so well as his beloved classic, “James and the Giant Peach”. I’ll go out on a limb and assume most of you reading this are familiar with the story- having read the book, seen the 1996 screen adaptation, or likely both. Well now you have new chance to enjoy the story in a new way, as it’s brought to life on stage by the Oregon Children’s Theatre.

JamesPeachOCTReview-May16I have to confess, I took my 6 year old son to this show with some skepticism. I have found that material as familiar as this can sometimes be difficult to translate to the stage without prompting the keen observations of children who have committed the story- and EVERY SINGLE detail- to memory. So, I was prepared for a lot of – “but what about this part” or “they didn’t show such and such.” But the OCT took a really interesting, and highly effective, approach that left my little guy fully engrossed in the story, and apparently quite satisfied with the “coverage” of the original text. Rather than trying to cram as many of the details from the book/movie as possible into the production, the production used a relatively sparse and continuously moving set to progress fluidly through the early phases of the story with more of a nod to the detail of the original. James’ back story- of being orphaned by a rogue rhino, being sent to live with his hideous aunts, and making friends with the local arachnids and other insect- is all there, but it unfolds rather briskly, helped along by fantastic performances by Ladahlord, the narrator, and the evil aunts Spiker and Sponge. This trio really helped the early parts of the show stay afloat- despite some musical numbers that to me felt a bit “Broadway” and out of sync with the tone of the source material.

The show really hit its stride, though, with the introduction of James’ co-star- the Giant Peach! I was curious how they would pull of this visual element and really impressed with the clever set design. Serving as an anchor for most of the remaining show, the Peach set was visually engaging (I heard an audible gasp from my 6 year older when it rolled onstage), but functional and cleverly designed enough to allow the core ensemble of actors to brilliantly play out the story from this single set piece. And play it out they did! It would be impossible to say that one performance stood out over another, as the cast really brought a unified energy that made you cheer for them as a group, and for James as their newly empowered leader, as much as you jeered his dreadful aunts when they reared their ugly heads. I asked my son afterward who his favorite character was, and he kept changing his mind until he covered pretty much the whole cast (It reminded me of watching a show like “Friends” and thinking- Joey’s the best…oh no, I love Chandler…man, Phoebe cracks me up!).

Photo credit: Owen Carey

Photo credit: Owen Carey

Overall, the show was really great fun and perfect for my 6 year old. The age recommendation is 4 and up, but I think the more abstract nature of the set design and storytelling might be more easily grasped by a slightly older crowd (there was a good deal of fidgeting from the younger children in attendance).

My only disappointment was that, for a children’s theater, I would have liked to see more involvement of children in the production itself. One of the things we like about taking our kids to theater is giving them a chance to see other kids perform and maybe feel inspired to pursue artistic endeavors of their own. There was only one child actor in the main cast- James himself (who was great by the way) – but the only other children in the show were “roustabouts” who moved the sets and occasionally participated in the background of a scene or two. This was my first time attending an OCT production and maybe this is just a personal preference, but it stood out in comparison to other children’s theater performances we’ve seen together. That said, the experience of attending a show at OCT- in the beautiful Newmark Theater at Portland Center for the Performing arts- is truly second to none and a great way to expose kids to the culture of professional performing arts and top notch theater production.

I look forward to attending more shows here with my family!

The less “fuzzy” details from the website:

Dates & Times
May 7- 29, 2016
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 5:00pm. Sundays at 11:00am and 2:00pm [2:00pm only on 5/28 and 5/29] (Sign Interpreted Performance: 5/14 at 2:00pm)

Location: Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland
Age Recommendation: 4 and up
Run time is 75 minutes with no intermission
Ticket Prices range from $14-$32

Brendon Bassett

Brendon Bassett

While I am originally from the east coast, I consider Portland and the NW my home.After a short time in Seattle after college, I returned to Portland with my wife and we have been raising our family here since.We enjoy just about everything Portland has to offer, but particularly like exploring in the forest, finding new parks to play in, and going to movies and shows.For my day job, I work as a Director at a non-profit social service agency, serving at-risk youth, families and older adults.I also play music and like watching Kung Fu movies!

I am an experienced singer, guitarist and performer.I play family-friendly music at coffee shops, restaurants and events all over town- often on my own or in a duo with my dad.People can feel free to email me if they have any need for music at an event.I also perform children's music.
Brendon Bassett

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