It’s quite an artistic risk to try to stage one of the most beloved and most banned children’s books of all time.
That’s why, for the first fully-staged version of a new musical based on Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” it takes no less than two distinguished Connecticut performing arts organizations to come together to make this dream a reality.
The two organizations are the innovative and athletic Pilobolus Dance Company, based in Washington Depot, CT, and to Goodspeed Musicals, of East Haddam, the only theater in the United States dedicated to the preservation and exploration of the American musical. And the long-held vision belongs to Timothy Allen McDonald, who not only acquired the theatrical rights from the Dahl estate nearly ten years ago but is also the author of the book for this world premiere production which is playing at the Norma Terris Theater in Chester from October 21 through November 21st. McDonald had previously developed a stage version of Dahl’s Willie Wonka and wrote the book for the Goodspeed production of “Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter.”
Anyone familiar with the popular classic may legitimately wonder how the story could possibly be turned into a stage-bound musical. First, the story can be quite macabre at times, with characters meeting untimely deaths at the hands of a rhinoceros or the giant peach of the title. That’s the reason the book is frequently challenged in schools and libraries, although the Brothers Grimm are quite often grimmer. Then there the plethora of insects, creatures, cloud men and other fantastical characters who populate the novel. Finally, there is that titular peach itself, which must roll through villages, soar above the earth and float along various bodies of water. How could all of that possibly be adapted for stage and song?
According to Bob Alwine, an Associate Producer at Goodspeed Musicals, those obstacles didn’t stop McDonald and his dream. In fact, when he went to put together his “dream” team, McDonald first turned to Pilobolus, the internationally renown dance company noted for its eclectic mix of athleticism, physical interaction, and exaggerations of the human form to resemble animals, insects, and inanimate objects. McDonald wanted to see if Pilobolus could be of assistance in developing the many creatures who inhabit the world of the peach, including silkworms, centipedes, seagulls, grasshoppers and ladybugs. Working with Pilobolus Creative Services, the arm responsible for the representational figures at the 2007 Academy Awards, McDonald was pleased to see how choreographer Michael Tracy, a long-time Pilobolus member, was able to work with the dancers to develop the creatures through the clever movements and arrangements of their bodies.
McDonald then approached the Goodspeed, which recognized an opportunity to collaborate with another Connecticut organization whose artistry and creativity the Goodspeed staff had admired. Not only would this be the two groups’ first chance to work together, but it would also mark Pilobolus’s first foray into the musical theater genre.
McDonald, however, was not quite through in putting together his creative team. Graciella Danielle, the noted Broadway director (“Once on This Island,” “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” “Clean” at Hartford Stage) and choreographer (the original productions of “Ragtime” for which she won the Tony Award), joined as director and two young composers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, signed on to write the music and lyrics. As a team, the two writers had been the youngest winners of the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award for musical theater composition and served as series songwriters for the Disney Channel’s “Johnny and the Sprites.”
What will distinguish “James and the Giant Peach” from other traditional musical stagings is that members of Pilobolus will be performing alongside dancing members of the show’s ensemble, who will be bringing their musical-comedy developed skills to the show. According to Alwine, two separate movement labs were held to assure that the Pilobolus and stage musical dance styles would be able to integrate on the stage. “The transitions are very smooth,” he reports. “You really can’t tell when one stops and the other begins; everything flows together quite nicely.” He also reveals reports of cases of what one could call “dance envy,” as the ensemble dancers expressed a desire to adopt some of the Pilobolus style, while the Pilobolus dancers wanted to learn how to express themselves in musical comedy terms.
But creating the menagerie of unusual creatures was just one one of the challenges facing the creators of the musical. Fortunately, according to Alwine, McDonald had developed an excellent relationship with the representatives of the Dahl estate over the years and they were very encouraging to him about developing the show. As a result of their trust, they permitted him to take some liberties with the book in order to make the story possible to be done on stage. For example, Alwine cites the need to maintain tension throughout the evening to help keep the plot moving forward. As a result, James’ two nasty aunts, Spiker and Sponge (played by Ruth Gottschall and Denny Dillon, respectively, in this production) remain as characters throughout the musical. Instead of being dispatched early, as happens in the original novel, they continue their pursuit of James into the second act.
Plus there is also the matter of the giant peach itself. Not only does the production have to depict it growing, much of the action takes place either on the peach or inside the peach. That problem has apparently been addressed by set designer Chris Barreca and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, who employed a variety of theatrical tricks and images that, Alewine promises, will not disappoint the most ardent fans of the Dahl novel.
Justin Lawrence Hall, who recently completed a national tour as Michael Banks in Mary Poppins, has been tapped to play James, while Steve Rosen will play Marvo the Magician, who helps start James on his magical adventures.
Alwine stresses that “James and the Giant Peach” has been created as a show for the entire family. It is not exclusively for children, he says, but instead is something that adults will enjoy and appreciate as well. While there are many children who are great fans of the Dahl novel, he reminds that many adults also grew up with the book and have fond memories of floating over the oceans with James and his friends.
Performances are Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Student matinees are scheduled for Tuesday, November 9and Thursday, November 18, at 11 a.m. Tickets are available at the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or on-line at goodspeed.org.