Riverwalk’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’ bursts with talent and whimsy


From the hands-on exhibit in the theater’s lobby, with a menagerie of multilegged critters courtesy of Michigan State University’s Bug House, to the standing ovation you’ll inevitably give this lively production, Riverwalk Theatre’s “James and the Giant Peach” will have you grinning from ear to ear.

Young James Trotter finds himself in a jam after his parents are killed by a stampeding rhinoceros, and he’s sent to live with his only remaining family: two comically atrocious aunts, Spiker and Sponge, who torment him with salty relish. After he’s provided the ingredients to create a magical potion that will change his miserable, rotten existence, courtesy of a traveling magician (before children were terrorized by the threat of “stranger danger”), James drops the potion and accidentally creates a giant peach and oversized insects. Responding to the insects’ pleas to escape the aunts’ abuse, James cuts the peach’s stem and rolls the group into outsized adventures, featuring a transatlantic voyage, killer sharks, seagulls and a certain New York City landmark.

It’s hard to go wrong with the catchy score by the Tony Award-winning team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and Timothy Allen McDonald’s quirky adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story is whimsically sublime. Director Linda Widener has stones, wrangling a 29-person cast, a child lead, five insect puppets, a life-sized rhinoceros and multiple song and dance numbers. While I spent the first few minutes of the play stewing in thought about how set designers Bob Nees and Tom Ferris would portray the ginormous peach, trust me, you won’t be disappointed. Thanks to husband-and-wife duo Michelle and Tracy Smith, the clever peach umbrellas make the fruit’s exponential growth look as easy as pie, and the insect puppets, crafted by local puppet maker Adam Carlson, are expertly handled by several cast members.

Morgan Pohl’s costumes don’t rely on Halloween-esque insect suits with dangling arms. Instead, they’re cleverly subtle.  For example, Earthworm, played with comical, androgynous neuroticism by Riley Hirai, wears a longish beige shirtdress with hand-applied segments, round sunglasses and a pith helmet.

From the cast of ten main characters to the 19-person ensemble, there isn’t a rotten peach in the whole bushel. While I wish I had the space to mention all the standout performances, I do want to spotlight the talented Nicholas Pasko, whose portrayal of James is evocative of a young Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”; song and dance man Luka Pawsek as magician and narrator Ladahlord; Brian Farnham as the impressive fiddle-playing Grasshopper; the Broadway-ready pipes of Sophia Charles Bernard as Spider; and Jane Zussman’s hilarious portrayal of the orphanage nurse. It’s truly a pleasure to witness so much talent right here in Lansing, and choreographer Fran Ludington and the rest of the production team certainly know how to channel that talent.



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