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James and the Low-Hanging Fruit

"JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH": From left, Maggie Neatherlin, Aidan Hoey, Jayson Haury, Meena Eloheimo, Aurora Strauss-Reeves and Vincent Walsh Smith. Photo credit: Dinea DePhoto

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I managed to catch a goodly chunk of Olympia Family Theater's 2008 production of James and the Giant Peach, despite performing in a thriller next door. If you enjoyed the 2008 version, you'll find OFT's current revival uses the same script. The costumes are the same or similar, and the proscenium set looks much as it has the last two productions. It's an all-youth production, so we calibrate our critical sights accordingly.

Roald Dahl's 1961 kid-lit classic is as charming as ever, with the same grim sense of humor as Dahl's slightly-more-famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which, as you know, is a slasher movie for preteens. It treats adults as obnoxious cannon fodder. Thus, we're treated to the early demises of Aunts Spiker (Hanna Mays) and Sponge (Madison Thomas), the meanest and therefore most interesting characters in the play. This leaves 5-year-old James, played by eighth-grader Aidan Hoey, to embark on a transatlantic voyage with anthropomorphized bugs in an oversize peach. Hoey tackles his role with clarity and energy, but I wonder if there's a way he might spend less time looking at the ground. Without frequent eye contact, we lose empathy with the character - who, when you think about it, isn't having the best week ever.

Can it really have been 17 years since the stop-motion animated film version? I doubt every young audience member knew the story going in, but they were able to track with it despite a pervading issue with vocal clarity. Perhaps that issue is why director Samantha Chandler opted not to use English or even New Yawk accents. In any case, it's one symptom of an overall problem with the production, which struck me as a leap backward for OFT.

The problem with James 2.0 is an easily discernible lack of ambition or imagination, possibly both. Perhaps the company is exhausted after its long run-up to Wind in the Willows last fall. I can't be too critical of child actors, as their work is the product of their training, but I don't think this production was reaching all that high. It recycles pre-owned tech elements, makes unambitious character choices and handles the evolution of the peach clunkily. Its overriding presentational style is "turn forward, say your line, gesture." When presented with song lyrics, the actors merely chant them. No one bothered to write them a tune, thus neglecting to take full advantage of the delightful (and useful!) fact that "Grasshopper" Maggie Neatherlin, a seventh-grader, plays a mean fiddle in family and garage bands.

The Potasniks' seagull puppets are lovely, and there's good buddy chemistry between "Centipede" Vincent Walsh Smith and "Earthworm" Jayson Haury. But without those leaps of imagination and scrappy ambition that have characterized so much of OFT's output over the last few years, I'm sorry to say this Peach falls flat.

OLYMPIA FAMILY THEATER, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, THROUGH FEB. 17, THURSDAY-FRIDAY, 7 P.M., SATURDAY-SUNDAY 1 P.M., $12-19, 512 WASHINGTON ST. SE, OLYMPIA, 360.753.8586

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