When new musicals are in their formative stages, one of the most common maladies they suffer from is the dreaded "second-act trouble." All too frequently, authors have a strong sense of how to set the show in motion, but they lose steam when it comes to bringing the show to a close.
The new musical James and the Giant Peach has the opposite problem. The show concludes its run this weekend at the Norma Terris Theater, which is the secondary venue for the venerable Goodspeed Opera House, where it presents productions of musicals under development. As currently configured, James and the Giant Peach has a first act that's an unfocused mess, but a second half that reveals just enough talent and heart to mark this work as a show of great promise.
James and the Giant Peach was one of my favorite childhood books, even more so than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is also by author Roald Dahl. I was excited to hear about a musical version in the works, particularly when I heard that the folks at Pilobolus,one of my favorite dance companies, would be involved in the process.
Unfortunately, the show doesn't currently make full or even adequate use of the Pilobolus dancers. In fact, a good deal of the time when the Pilobolus troupe are supposed to be miming some particular action, or representing a specific animal/vegetable/mineral of storytelling import, the effect is vague and inscrutable. One notable exception is a thrilling and inventive sequence in Act 2 in which the dancers bring to vivid life a shark attack on the eponymous peach as it floats across the Atlantic. The show could really use a few more of these moments of imaginative synthesis.
The main problems with the show on paper are insufficient character establishment and a rather forgettable score. Librettist Timothy Allen McDonald makes a number of interesting choices in terms of opening the show up beyond the book. For instance, the show starts with a good deal of back-story to introduce us to James and his parents. Anyone who's read the book (or seen any Disney movie) will know that the parents aren't long for this world, but the book only mentions their fate in passing.
McDonald expands the character of the strange little man who provides James with the magic that creates the giant peach. Here the man becomes Marvo the Magician, and he figures prominently in the reconfigured plot. McDonald also weaves Aunts Spiker and Sponge more evenly throughout the story. But, for all his seeming improvements, McDonald has some work ahead of him with respect to setting these characters up in a believable and consistent way.
As for the score, for years I've been hearing songs by the up-and-coming writing team Pasek and Paul (AKA Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), although this is the first book show of theirs that I've encountered. Their work here is certainly lively, but much of it is generic, particularly "On Your Way Home," a by-the-numbers "wanting" song. Their lyrics seem moderately clever, but much of their meaning was lost to rapid-fire tempi that made them difficult to discern.
The direction and staging here are surprisingly static for Graciele Daniele, who's usually a very reliable, if somewhat uneven, director and choreographer. The cast features an impressive array of Broadway-caliber performers, including Jim Stanek, Steve Rosen, and Kate Wetherhead, an extremely appealing performer whom I last saw in the otherwise desultory Ordinary Days. The main hole in the cast, alas, was James himself, one Justin Lawrence Hall. I might have seen the show on an off day, but Hall was consistently and distractingly flat throughout the show, sported a very uneven British accent, and most important didn't really to seem to embody the character on an emotional level.
A note in the program for James and the Giant Peach, by librettist McDonald, points out that the minimal sets and costumes for this particular production were deliberate, in order to allow the authors a chance to focus on the storytelling and make sure the show was working dramatically. That's a wise choice, and I sincerely hope that the authors have a chance to take a big step back and discover a way to make this beloved and worthy property work as a musical.