Imagine a fantastic tale written by one of the best children's storytellers ever, creatively and humorously brought to life by a stellar and completely-attuned-to-young-audiences cast, with costumes designed so imaginatively and cleverly that they are almost cast members in their own right, and you've got the perfect hour of entertainment for theatergoers of all ages. In short, you've got James and the Giant Peach (based on the children's book by Roald Dahl), currently running at the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center.
The over-the-top humor (resulting in loud guffaws from both parents and kids) is mainly the province of the two talented actors portraying James's bizarre relatives--Ron Megee (Aunt Spiker) and Matt Weiss (Aunt Sponge). Comedy painted with such broad strokes does not always pan out--however, Megee and Weiss pull off the slapstick style beautifully. Three years ago Megee played the part of the Grand High Witch in Dahl's The Witches at this same theater, with hilarious results, so I was thrilled to see him back onstage, as witty as ever.
The storyline is sheer Dahl at his most whimsical. Young James is orphaned when his parents, while out shopping in London, are gobbled up by a rampaging rhinoceros on Oxford Street. True to fairytale fashion, he is sent to live with two horrible, yet delightfully dim-witted aunts, who order him about like an indentured servant and even take away his beloved teddy bear. (Far from being depressing, this part of the show is hysterically funny, thanks to the antics of Megee and Weiss in their completely ridiculous costumes and makeup. Megee is practically the spitting image of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest--with a Bride of Frankenstein white thunderbolt streak in her upswept dark hair added for good measure, and Weiss wears a molded body suit to appear as roly-poly as the roundest beach ball.)
The aunts not only harass their young charge, but they're constantly bickering and hurling insults at each other that are side-splittingly funny. Because they are such broadly drawn caricatures of cruel aunts, their behavior will not frighten even the most tenderhearted tot in the theater.
A giant peach and a group of talking insects, including Megee and Weiss doing double duty as a dour, blind Earthworm (Megee) and a boastful Centipede with the personality of a grandstanding used car salesman (Weiss), work their magic to take James on an extraordinary adventure into a shark-infested sea and then up in the wild blue yonder, pulled by seagulls harnessed by silken spiderweb strings.
Sound too fantastical to believe? Relax. This story is meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed. And, believe it or not, each element of the production works brilliantly, because of the quality of the individual actors' performances.
Walter Coppage (who is triply cast as an Usher, Mysterious Man and Old Green Grasshopper) is amazing in all three roles. His infectious grin and rollicking good humor help carry the show along. Coppage is no stranger to Kansas City stages--in fact, he played Bob Cratchit in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's A Christmas Carol.
Ryan Emmons and Marshall Hopkins each play young James in alternating shows. I saw Emmons' performance, which was perfectly adequate, although the script doesn't give the character James much to do, except to react as "straight man" to the buffoonery of both the madcap aunts and the eccentric insects.
Molly Denninghoff (Spider) and Enjoli Gavin (Ladybug) are both spot-on in their roles as charming and somewhat sophisticated insects. (They also have minor roles as ushers and sailors.)
Kudos to Ernie Nolan (Director), Erin Walley (Set Designer), Art Kent (Resident Lighting Designer), Cynthia Postlewait (Sound Designer), Lauren Roark (Costume Designer) and Dorian Kofinas (Projection Designer) for making the whole magical world of the Giant Peach come alive. Kofinas deserves special mention for her animation that causes even the most peculiar plotlines of this story to seem as if they could really happen.