“Have you even begun to wonder?”
In an act of great generosity and canny marketing, an all-star recording of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score for James and the Giant Peach was made available as a free download for a time earlier this year and though it may have taken me a little while to get around to it, I can safely say it is one of my favourite new musicals that I have listened to all year. Roald Dahl novels seem to lend themselves to strong musical adaptations but there’s something magical at work here that means James is closer to Matilda than Charlie in the grand scheme of things.
It’s all the more surprising considering how much I wasn’t a fan of Pasek and Paul’s breakout hit Dogfight, highly lauded in some corners after its Southwark Playhouse premiere last year but not by me. Here though, their musical language has a gorgeous sensibility to it, full of buoyant energy and fresh harmony and interesting orchestration that really makes it stand out from the crowd. Utterly contemporary but avoiding chasing trends, there’s a sophistication to the writing here that really does, for me, recall the heights of Tim Minchin’s score for Matilda.
Charismatic numbers for the villainous cackling aunts and the insects that accompany James on his odyssey – the earthworm’s ‘Plump and Juicy’ is a highlight – and Timothy Allen McDonald’s book has wisely been unafraid to tinker with the story to make it fit the demands of theatrical story-telling better (the aunts stick around a lot longer, for example). And interesting balladry and slower stuff like James; ‘Middle of a Moment’ sung beautifully twice by Luca Padovan and by the significantly older Skylar Austin as a bonus track.
It can’t be long before this show appears on UK shores, can it? Listening to it, it seems destined to be a success no matter what scale it is played at and I’m willing to overcome my natural antipathy towards puppets (for that is surely how the show will be done at least in part) in order to make this happen.