Encore Theatre's junior production of "James and the Giant Peach" finds a way to make everything better


James and the Giant Peach

A Nancy Ekholm Burkert illustration from the 1961 edition of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how trippy a moment we find ourselves in that the work of Roald Dahl seems suddenly, particularly ubiquitous.

For just as a touring production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues its run at Detroit’s Fisher Theater, regional productions of the James and the Giant Peach stage musical -- with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, and music and lyrics by U-M grads and Oscar, Tony, and Grammy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- have been sprouting up everywhere, including at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

Encore’s junior production, which begins February 28 and runs for eight performances through March 8, features 22 young performers, ranging in age from eight to 18.

“One of the things I love about [the show] is, not just the chosen family aspect of it, but also, James has this ability to be dealt a terrible hand constantly, and yet he always finds a way to make it better, and always finds the good in things that other are quick to overlook and discard,” said Matthew Brennan, the director of Encore’s production. “The insects, for example, these pests people just want out of their house. … [H]e finds potential in them, and that speaks to something really cool about this story.”

In the stage musical, young James awakes in an orphanage after having a nightmare about his parents’ death-by-rhinos at the London Zoo. (Dahl’s stories for children always have a pretty dark, black comedy lining.) James has no one to tell his story to but a ladybug and a grasshopper, but soon, he’s swept away to live with two aunts who consider him to be little more than an unpaid laborer.

After saving an earthworm from a centipede, and spilling magic potion onto a tree, James soon finds a newly grown, enormous peach on the tree, and he and his insect friends end up setting sail on it, crossing the ocean toward New York.

Brennan’s vision for the show involved a more abstract (and thus less literal) approach. “For our production, I really wanted to use a lot of found objects,” said Brennan. “Things that we all walk past without thinking about them.”

But Brennan had a tough sell when initially describing this imagination-reliant take to his young cast.

“You could tell they had a moment of, ‘We might have signed up for the wrong thing. This is going to be terrible,’” Brennan said, laughing. “But we read through it and talked about a bunch of stuff, and I said, ‘Go home, think about the show, and think about what might be problematic or challenging sequences to stage without a huge budget and a massive set.’ At the next rehearsal, we began with, ‘Well, the opening’s going to be hard, and staging the scene where the peach gets bigger is going to be hard’ -- until it was finally, like, from beginning to end, this is going to be hard to stage. So then I said, ‘Anybody have thoughts on some interesting ways to do these things?’”

The kids had fun coming up with innovative ideas -- like using umbrellas as a stand-in for the growing peach -- and gave them a more hands-on role in the show’s design and execution.

Which is exactly what Brennan wanted.

“No one signs up for a junior production thinking that they might be a junior director, or a junior choreographer, or a junior set designer,” said Brennan. “But if there had been an opportunity for me to do something like that as a kid, it would have been nice, because it would have made me feel like I could possibly do those things, too.”

This heavy creative investment from the kids -- who have been rehearsing three times a week since the beginning of January -- extends to them playing key roles in making sure props and set pieces get where they need to be.

“There are three different scene shifts where all 22 kids are involved,” said Brennan. “It’s literally a machine. Even the little ones have been handed a lot of responsibility in making sure it all functions. … I like to think we’ve taken [ensemble members] a step farther, so they’re not just part of this one number, and the opening and the closing numbers. … I told them the other night, ‘I hope you all realize how important you all are to this show.’”

And although the show’s songwriters, Pasek and Paul, have become far more famous recently for The Greatest ShowmanDear Evan Hansen, and La La Land -- James premiered long before these projects, at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals in 2010 -- Brennan said James' score “is probably my favorite of all their stuff. … It’s pretty catchy.”

And lest we forget the fanciful spell Dahl’s stories have cast upon kids for several generations now, one need only look at Encore’s stage during the curtain call for James.

“By the end, there’s confetti and popsicle sticks and Nerf gun bullets and all kinds of stuff,” Brennan said. “It’s like a war zone. … I don’t envy those who re-set it for the next day at all.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

"James and the Giant Peach" runs February 28 to March 8 at Encore Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Visit theencoretheatre.org for tickets and more info.