By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Look at James and the Giant Peach through the eyes of a 5-year-old and you'll see a cute play about a sad British orphan boy who grows a big piece of fruit, makes friends with giant bugs and lives happily ever after in New York City. A super-sized stage adaptation of the much-loved 1961 Roald Dahl chapter book is entertaining the young ones at Dallas Children's Theater right now. They always do lovely work at this venue, and at the matinee reviewed, the children in the audience seemed completely swept up in the whimsical story (adapted by playwright David Wood) throughout the 90-minute performance.
The Immigrant continues through April 7 at Stage West, Fort Worth, 817-784-9378.
The Pretentious Maidens continues through April 29 at Teatro Dallas, 214-468-8732.
But I wonder if any of the other grown-ups in the audience viewed this Giant Peach the way I did—as the dirtiest fairy tale since Little Annie Fanny. Seriously. Hilariously. And that's not a bad thing. Children's theater is loads more fun for adults to experience when it's layered with barely disguised references to huge genitalia and breathless sexual release.
This is not just a peach that young James enters as his portal to adventure, but a giant peach. Here's Dahl's description in the book when the fuzzy fruit opens itself to welcome the boy in: "The tunnel was damp and murky, and all around him was the curiously bittersweet smell of fresh peach. The floor was soggy under his knees, the walls were wet and sticky, and peach juice was dripping from the ceiling. James opened his mouth and caught some of it on his tongue. It tasted delicious."
Now slap my face and call me Sigmund if that doesn't sound like a big ol' ripe va-jay-jay dripping all over lucky Jim. The kid spends the rest of the story inside the throbbing peach, which he shares with three enormous male insect figures—one described as "the biggest, fattest, pinkest, juiciest earthworm in the world"—plus a flirty ladybug and a female spider. And get this, the peach and the bugs have grown to mammoth proportions because of a bag of squirmy little green things James has been given by a mysterious dwarf. They call them "crocodile tongues," but the squiggly dealies get spilled on the ground, fertilizing a nearly dead peach tree and producing the piece of fruit and the great big spiders and worms. Squigglies and dripping peaches! Clutch the pearls, it's porn for pre-K.
Frankly, the smutty interpretation of all this would not have occurred to me, at least not quite so quickly, if Peach director Artie Olaisen, scenic designer Randel Wright and costumer Derek C. Whitener had not made it so flipping obvious. The earthworm costume, for instance, turns actor Seth T. Magill into a gigantic wrinkled penis (uncircumcised, I might add). During the action, the worm wriggles his head through a hole in the side of the peach, pushing through again and again until at last he is finished, whereupon he announces, "I feel myself shriveling. I'm so empty." Then he takes a nap. Typical.
Wright depicts the growth spurt of the peach with some soft-edged, pink-hued animated images projected behind the actors. When they get to the part where the tunnel opens in the peach, the artistic rendering on the big screen looks ever so much like a billboard-size version of one of erotic ceramicist Judy Chicago's vulvar dinner plates. Or maybe an O'Keeffe flower. Or a paparazzi snap of pre-rehab Britney Spears disembarking from a limo, legs akimbo.
Making it all even weirder and sexually suggestive is Olaisen's casting of adult actor Johnny Sequenzia in the role of 7-year-old James. Sequenzia tries to sound childlike by throwing his voice into Sanjaya-like falsetto, but this guy should have transitioned out of boy ingénue roles years ago. It might not have been appropriate to cast a real kid as James, but this is like watching Joe Pesci trying to play Little Lord Fauntleroy.
The Freudian take on James and the Giant Peach could be that it's an allegory about childhood regression and sexual discovery. OK, whatever. Kids apparently love this goofy story. It's been constantly in print for the past 46 years. But come on, Dahl ends the tale by letting the big peach carry James, the phallic earthworm and their pals to New York City, where the juicy fruit safely docks on the point of the Empire State Building. That's when hordes of hungry New Yorkers storm the skyscraper and chomp away at the peach until only the pit remains.
The DCT show ends there, complete with big shots of confetti onto our heads. But in my mind, James and all the rest of the peach-eaters cuddle for a while, share a cigarette and turn on the news.
Covering nearly 40 years, The Immigrant presents naïve Haskell and his impatient spouse, Leah (Allison McCorkle), as symbols of Jewish assimilation into American life. First they learn the language, then begin building a family and a successful business in a town where they are the only Jews. Milton and Ima treat the Hareliks sometimes as friends, sometimes as annoying threats to their American (read: Christian) ways. Eventually, they all learn to respect a multitude of cultural, religious and dietary differences. Yawn.
The best reason to invest two and a half hours in this production is McElyea's sensitive and beautifully sung performance in the lead. Believable and engaging in every scene, the actor allows Haskell to mature subtly as the story progresses. McElyea has worked at that Yiddish-tinged accent to make it authentic, and he even lets it take on just the slightest hints of Texas twang the longer the character lives in Hamilton.
Young McElyea was terrific wearing a gingham dress as Miss Great Plains in Uptown Players' recent hit musical Pageant, and he's just as good wrapped in a fringed tallit as Haskell in The Immigrant. He handles this show's difficult score (by Steven M. Alper) better than anyone else onstage (certainly better than Corolla, who is off-tempo more than he's on). Influenced by klezmer music, the songs are written in odd minor keys, their melodic lines sung nearly independently from the tunes played by the four-piece band led by pianist Jay Adkins.
What weighs the show down most are an unwieldy book by Mark Harelik (it's based on his family history) and its tendency to work themes into the ground. The talky parts are too talky. The musical parts could be trimmed in half. It's like, enough already, we get it.
In their 80-seat theater in West Dallas, the Teatro Dallas cast screams and shrieks where whispers would suffice. They stomp and crash around the tiny stage. An offstage drummer punctuates lines of dialogue with rim shots so loud the audience flinches in pain.
Wearing whiteface with black-painted mustaches on the men and spit curls on the women, the actors demolish Molière's frothy playlet about uppity sisters (Heather Pratt, Natalie Berry) tricked by suitors (Gabriel Montez, Eduardo Guzmán) into flirting with lowly servants (Scott Barber, Ignacio Lujá) who are pretending to be fine gentlemen. They steamroll the fun out of every scene.
Light comedy and heavy acting—like a minuet danced in combat boots.
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