Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” was one of my favorite books when I was a kid, but I didn’t remember much about it until I wrote a preview story in advance of Tuesday’s opening night at Venice Theatre for its Generations series of family-friendly shows.
But the story came flooding back as I watched this mostly charming if overly sunny version of the adventures of an orphan boy, some human-sized insects and the giant peach that carries them on a journey from England to New York City.
Dahl, who also wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda,” often wrote about young heroes who generally suffer at the hands of wicked adults before they triumph in the end through pluck, creativity and sheer personality.
The darker aspects of “James and the Giant Peach” are lightly handled in the new musical that features a bouncy and attractive score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Timothy Allen McDonald that makes it comfortable enough for most ages. James suffers nightmares of how his parents died in a freak accident, but it’s depicted mostly in the shadows in the staging by Brad Wages.
Spike and Sponge, the two pickpocketing aunts who end up taking James in, are portrayed with great spirit by Kristi Hibschman and Khadija “Kat” Sallet as broadly comical villains. They perfectly fit the brightly colored and mismatched fabrics in the costumes designed by Nicholas Hartman.
Hartman also has done some fine work giving human form to a Centipede, Green Grasshopper, Ladybug, Earthworm and Spider who grow to life size after ingesting a magic potion that also turned an ordinary peach into something magically large.
That peach grows on a ragged looking tree and turns into a two-story set piece, designed by Brian Freeman, with a giant stem and pit at the center. It’s attractive and effective, but it would be nice if it could move a bit more.
Judah Woomert, who was a delightful Ralphie in the Players Centre’s 2014 production of “A Christmas Story: The Musical” (another show by Pasek and Paul), brings great energy and inner strength to his role as James, who has lived too long being told to keep his thoughts to himself.
But he finds himself, along with a new family, with the help of the five insects who join him on his journey across the Atlantic Ocean. DaNiesha Carr, Stephen Emery, Beckett Phanmiller, Lisa Figueroa and Kevin Ray Johnson bring distinct personalities that seem to suit their insect characters.
And James also is guided by Nethaneel Williams, who is full of life and surprises as Ladahlord, a sort of conjuring narrator, who pops up along the journey in a number of eye-catching guises.
Wages’ production has a slight comic book flair, especially when it comes to ensemble members becoming birds, sharks and clouds. Music director Eli Schildkraut has done some nice work with the cast, who create some strong harmonies on several numbers.
But the production misses the drive that live musicians would provide. The recorded accompaniment never overwhelms the performers, though some of their microphones need to be turned up.
Still, it’s a show that has enough smarts to keep adults interested while providing color and action for the younger set.
“JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH”
Words and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Timothy Allen McDonald. Directed and choreographed by Brad Wages. Reviewed May 17, Venice Theatre, 140 W. Tampa Ave., Venice. Through May 22. 941-488-1115; venicestage.com