Theatre Review: Limelight continues to entertain with James and the Giant Peach
Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach is being cleverly presented at Limelight Performing Arts Center in West Chester. Words and Music by the on top of the world due of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman, La La Land, A Christmas Story, etc) with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald tells the story of a young James who is on a quest to cut down a peach tree and goes on a magical journey.
LimePAC as it is locally known, runs a format unlike any other that I know if in the area. They produce a full-length musical for children every fall and spring that is geared to young audiences but done by local professional actors mixed with students of the performing arts center. Known as the professional production, the show is helmed and mounted. Followed by THREE additional productions that are done by their elementary, middle school, and high school students respectively. A very smart business model. Peach marks my fourth Limelight experience following this model having seen Seussical, Wizard of Oz, and Honk!
Being a frequent flyer at Limelight it’s easy to recognize the company’s theme. Find a good children’s musical, come up with a concept that allows integration of child actors, and produce innovative story-telling. With previous productions, the use of child actors in the professional productions, were simply additions to the ensemble. In James and the Giant Peach, the children were a part of the concept. Director, Chad Parsons, took the telling of the story on an empty stage one step further. He created a prologue that took a bunch of young children outside to play ball but the ball escapes and enters an empty old vacated theatre. The vacant theatre is adorned with old memorabilia like a gramophone, airplanes, props, and costumes. The 4-person* “Children’s Professional Chorus”, as they are called, explore the theatre. During this exploration, I would have preferred a little more vocal help in explaining what was going on by the child actors. I didn’t quite understand what they were looking at or pantomiming or how we got into the actual story of “James and the Giant Peach” until the scripted version of the show began. This was my first foray into the world of James and the Giant Peach and I was a bit perplexed.
The story is that James (played by Scott Keller Angelides but shared with two other actors on subsequent weekends) is an orphan and is sent to live with his aunts (Christina Higgins and Daniel K. Williams). Another theme at Limelight is to cast male actors to play women in full drag having seen this done with Polka Dots and Honk previously. Although clever, believable and downright hilarious as Mr. Williams was (especially with a can of Redi-whip!), as a woman in the arts, I’d like to see more women in roles especially when originally written for one. I will note they have done the same by casting women in roles originally played by men, but the difference here is that they aren’t playing opposite sex. The narrator of the tale, named Ladahlord, is played with a menacing Gene Wilder flare by Caleb J. Tracey. He was aloof, cheeky, and gumby-like. As the conductor to the insects played by the adult professionals, he led the team nicely.
On James’ journey he is crosses paths with insects as portrayed by intricately designed puppets by Joshua Gallagher and handled by the adult actors, Kat Lemon (Earthworm), Tristan Horan (Centipede), Sarah Kirk (Ladybug), Chris Monaco (Grasshopper), and Amanda Spivack (Spider). Without spoiling any plotlines, the puppets become human sized insects. It should be noted that the human costumes of the insects are superbly designed by Julia Pogue, particularly the Centipede. The integration of Gallagher’s puppets and Pogue’s clothing was top notch. On top of properties design, Gallagher is also responsible for the breathtaking scenic design and artistry. As mentioned, the story takes place in a theatre, to which the stage proscenium duplicates as the peach in question. Framing the peach(es) are chasing lights that are beautifully cued by Lighting Designer Ed Robbins. The LEDs that were strategically placed in every nook and cranny truly brought together a life-like environment.
With having a gorgeous set to play on, with actors dressed up to the nines, and lit until the day is new, gave an exceptional backdrop to Adam Hoyak’s fresh and fun choreography and Parson’s staging. Eric Longo’s musical direction was well executed. A standout was young Angelides and his beautiful soprano. Although hard to hear when speaking, he was a powerhouse when he sang. Think young Billy Gilman. Another peach of a singer was Christina Higgins. She’s a younger Ethel Merman type with deeper vibrato. And without question the insect team were all incredible singers and each carried their own torch song quite well. Each and every one of them an up-and-comer in Philly. Although a Pasek and Paul production, I didn’t quite leave humming any particular tune, but I did fall in love with a song called “Plump and Juicy” performed by Lemon for many reasons.
As Limelight continues to entertain children in the Chester County arena, I am happy to support their growth and admire their format. As they continue to get bigger, I’ve seen growth from their first show to now, particularly in lighting elements. I hope in the coming years they can add microphones to their mix. It’s a great venue and something to consider when looking for things to do with your children AND things for your children to do!
James and the Giant Peach runs for two more weekends with their professional cast. For information on their elementary, middle, and high school versions, visit them online. Limepac.com.
*CPC actors the day I attended the performance were Amanda Belej, Lily Lane-Aharonian, Eddie Sims, and Molly Toner.