By Rita J. Egan
The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport is serving up a juicy treat with its newest children’s production “James and the Giant Peach.” Based on the classic Roald Dahl tale, the musical, under the direction of Jennifer Collester Tully, features a score by the Tony Award-nominated team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that alternates between the touching and the upbeat and the book by Timothy Allen McDonald that stays true to Dahl’s original magical story.
The whimsical musical captures the imaginations of theatergoers, both young and old, and the cast effortlessly transports the audience from the hero’s original dismal circumstances to a delectable adventure. As the story opens, we meet James Henry Trotter, an orphan, who has just discovered he can leave the orphanage where he has been staying to go live with his two aunts. The audience soon learns though that his new guardians are usually up to no good.
When the duo demand that James chop down a peach tree, while they spend the day at the beach, the young lad is visited by Ladahlord who reveals to him a special potion to use on the peach tree. Later, when it’s discovered the tree has produced a giant peach, the aunts scheme to make money off the oddity. However, their plans are foiled when James is pulled into an adventure with a colorful cast of friendly insects.
With the opening number, “Right Before Your Eyes,” the audience gets a delightful peek at the offbeat characters that will soon become part of James’ life. Michael Verre as Ladahlord, also serves as narrator in the production, and with his sweet tenor voice, lulls the theatergoers into a magical land where a giant peach can exist and change the life of a young man, right before their eyes.
Max Venezia, who played James on opening day, and alternates the role with Austin Levine, captures the gentle spirit of the protagonist, which is clear during his first number “On Your Way Home” in Act 1. Audience members can’t help but feel a bit of sadness for the little boy who no longer has a family to call his own.
Alyson Clancy as Aunt Sponge and Suzanne Mason as Aunt Spiker are so adept at their comedic abilities, with Clancy even taking out a can of whipped cream at one point, that they not only provide plenty of comic relief but they also make the audience forget just what terrible human beings these character really are. With numbers such as “Property of Spiker and Sponge,” “There’s Money on That Tree” and “I Got You” throughout the play, you can’t help but like the dastardly aunts thanks to Clancy and Mason.
The musical features some entertaining dance numbers, too. During the first act, Verre and Venezia share lead vocals in the lively number “Shake It Up.” While the ensemble joins in the vocals and choreography, Verre is the one who takes center stage with his impressive tap dancing skills.
As the second act opens, the audience discovers James has entered the peach and, along with the lad, meets the eclectic group of life-sized insects. There’s Ladybug played divinely by Kate Keating; Grasshopper portrayed dapperly by James Schultz; Spider presented stylishly by Samantha Carroll; and Danny Meglio as Earthworm embracing his character with thick reading glasses and just the right amount of pessimism for the whimsical adventure. In addition, actress Jacqueline Hughes is a standout as Centipede, as she convincingly portrays a male character like a street-smart newsboy.
The second act allows the actors who play the insects a chance to show off their acting and singing talents, and they don’t disappoint. They also receive a few giggles from the audience with their antics as they navigate their small quarters inside the rolling peach.
While the critters may be surprised at first to share their space with a human, the number “Everywhere That You Are” shows the insects may have a soft spot for our hero. Led by Keating and Schultz, the bugs deliver the song with a tenderness that convinces you of the bonding with the boy, not only on stage but off as well.
The Earthworm also comes out of his bookish shell during the number “Plump and Juicy,” and Meglio and his fellow insects perform an entertaining number that eases the tension during a scary moment in the peach and adds just the right amount of goofiness that is always welcomed in a children’s musical.
While trouble ensues when the giant peach and its passengers encounter sharks, seagulls and even impalement on the Empire State Building, James and his new friends conquer their fears and work together to save the day. The cast ends the show perfectly on an upbeat note with the song “Welcome Home,” and when all is said and done, we find that sometimes a sense of family can be unearthed in the most unusual places.
All involved with the Engeman’s “James and the Giant Peach” have produced a heartwarming and inspiring story that will keep children as well as adults entertained from beginning to end. It’s a perfectly peachy way to spend a weekend morning with the family.
The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, 250 Main St., as part of its Bethpage Federal Credit Union Youth Theater Series, will present “James and the Giant Peach” on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. through Nov. 8. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.