The best thing about the Arden Theatre Company's holiday production - a stage adaptation of
James and the Giant Peach
- is its sock-'em high-tech effects, and that's no surprise. The surreal story is hard to pull off live on stage.
The late Roald Dahl's fantastical book, about a boy who escapes rotten treatment from two mean aunts by rolling away in a giant peach full of friendly insects, makes a fine tale. It tickles your imagination as you read it.
It made an engrossing movie a dozen years ago - the action is sometimes sky-high, sometimes under the sea - and the animated film thrived on the extremes.
The Arden's stage version - by much of the creative team that shaped its last holiday hit, an adaptation of Dahl's
- doesn't live up to all the excitement of the story, although not for want of trying. Jorge Cousineau, the hottest stage-effects designer in town, has wrapped it in terrific digital derring-do, for sure.
But in the 45-minute first half - the show's setup, before James, his new insect pals and the peach take off on an adventure voyage - David Wood writes a staccato adaptation of the book, and Whit MacLaughlin's direction belabors its points. James' abusive aunts (Stephanie English and Harum Ulmer Jr.), for example, go on and on in what feels like either a routine that needs a good edit or a cushion to stretch the show into a 90-minute two-act.
The reaction from two different generations in the audience was telling at Saturday's opening night. Some parents prodded their kids to be excited: "Oh, look at the rhinoceros!" (The animal makes a cameo, also lacking pep.) And the young ones often delivered a lukewarm response to what were supposed to be
moments - a reaction that says more about a children's show than any grown-up theater critic could.
The second half of
James and the Giant Peach
is better because it contains the crux of the tale, as young James shows the bugs how a little logic can get them out of the trouble coming at them constantly. Even here, the timing seems a bit off - the perfect synch between the live action on Matt Saunders' peachy set and Cousineau's computer graphics is stymied by the pace of the show in general, which lacks an essential vigor.
Some songs - so teensy, they're really songlets - by James Sugg add nothing, although Sugg's second-half background music is wonderfully evocative as the giant peach careers through the world. Christal Weatherly's costumes are properly cartoonish.
Although he can be charming, James William Ijames, portraying James, is too old and too tall for the role - too tough to believe as a little boy. His friends include, under their costumes, some veteran Philadelphia actors: a centipede (Brian Osborne), a dour earthworm (Frederick Andersen), a grasshopper (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), a spider (Ceal Phelan) and a ladybug (Amanda Schoonover). Maybe during the show's run, the Arden will get the bugs out - not literally, of course.
Presented by the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through Feb. 8. Tickets: $14-$30, depending on age. Information: 215-922-1122 or