Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

James and the Giant Peach
Valley Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Scapin, Mary Poppins, West Side Story, The Exorcist Has No Legs, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin and Man of La Mancha

Haley Hanni, Owen Watson, and Addison Bowman
Photo by Skye Fallon
Roald Dahl's fantasy-filled children's novels have been turned into numerous movies, and three of his books, including "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and "Matilda" have been adapted for the stage. One of the latest adaptations is the musical version of James and the Giant Peach, which is based on Dahl's 1961 book. The fairly simple story follows the adventures of a young orphan boy, some oversized insects, and a very large peach—and it's a charmer. Valley Youth Theatre's production has a cast comprised of some exceptionally talented young actors and results in a heartwarming, toe tapping treat for the entire family.

After his parents die, young James is forced to live with his two despicable aunts near the White Cliffs of Dover in South England. When a magical spell makes a peach grow to a gigantic size, James finds a way to escape his miserable life, meet a group of insects who have also been transformed by the spell, and discover the true meaning of "family."

Timothy Allen McDonald's fast-aced adaption streamlines Dahl's novel, eliminating some of the more frightening and gruesome moments, and achieves a beautiful message. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's score includes charming ballads, character pieces with witty lyrics, and several up-beat ensemble numbers. Pasek and Paul are the young songwriting team with a Tony nomination under their belts for their score of A Christmas Story, the Musical. Their score for James and the Giant Peach shows they are gifted in their ability to compose songs with both memorable melodies and fun, clever lyrics.

Director Bobb Cooper has assembled a wonderful cast, all capable of getting laughs from the funny script, led by the charming Owen Watson (as James), who has a sweet disposition, a lovingly displayed sense of wonder, and a fairly good and consistent English accent. He also has a clear and beautiful voice that is put to good use throughout, especially on his solo, "On Your Way Home." Addison Bowman and Haley Hanni are a hoot as James' selfish, nasty aunts, Spiker and Sponge. They play off each other well, and their over the top comical delivery achieves hilarious portrayals of these horrible women who you love to hate.

Clark Shaeffer plays the narrator of the story, and his clear, direct delivery sets the right balance of tone as he keeps telling us what is about to unfold "right before our eyes." As James' six new giant-size insect friends, Isabella Conner, Tiana Marks and Avery Strachan get a few moments to charm James, as well as the audience, as Ladybug, Spider and Glowworm; Connor Baker makes the somewhat difficult, and fearful of humans, Centipede a fun character to watch grow and change; Sam Primack is hilarious as the nervous and scared Earthworm; and Nathan Franzke is sweet as the Grasshopper. All seven form a fun, new version of "family"—warts and all.

The set design includes a few small set pieces plus a giant flat, round, peach-colored movable stage platform that takes up a large amount of the VYT stage to portray the peach as it floats across the sea and sails across the sky. It is a simple effect, but works very well. Karol Cooper's costumes and make-up designs are excellent. They are full of color and character-specific elements as well as plenty of English touches that don't shirk the setting of the piece. Music director Rebecca Joslin achieves some lovely harmonies as well as clear solo vocals from the large cast.

James and the Giant Peach is a brisk, comical show with several catchy tunes and memorable characters. While most of Dahl's trademark dark and scary moments have been omitted from this adaptation, making it completely child friendly, what rings clear is the message of family and how a person's actual family doesn't necessarily always make the best home, while his true friends does. With a solid production of this famous tale, Valley Youth Theatre proves once again that their talented casts, color creative elements, and exceptional direction result in some of the best family friendly theatre in the Valley.

James and the Giant Peach at Valley Youth Theatre runs through October 25th, 2015. The theatre is located at 525 North First Street in downtown Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at or by calling 602 253-8188.

Director/Choreographer: Bobb Cooper
Music Director: Rebecca Joslin
Costume Designer: Karol Cooper
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Sound Design: Tom Holmberg
Production Stage Manager: Tiffany Owen

Connor Baker: Centipede
Addison Bowman: Spiker
Isabella Conner: Ladybug
Nathan Franzke: Grasshopper
Haley Hanni: Sponge
Tiana Marks: Spider
Sam Primack: Earthworm
Clark Shaeffer: Ladahlord
Avery Strachan: Glow worm
Owen Watson: James
Ensemble: Lauren Baber, Nora Baier, Sophia Bavishi, Brandon Brown, Hugo Crick-Furman, Kayla Dobbs, Charlie Siegel and Andy Wissink

--Gil Benbrook

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