DUAL CRITICS REVIEW: ‘James and the Giant Peach” at ABET, All Beaches Experimental Theatre

We attended the festive debut of the brand new home of the All Beaches Experimental Theatre at 544 Atlantic Boulevard in Neptune Beach, Florida on Friday, September 22, 2018. The theatre was founded by Carson Merry Baillie a number of years ago and named the Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre; their new name reflects their more expansive audience. Their new home is located in the Neptune Beach Plaza; excellent parking and pre-show dining opportunities are within walking distance. We were greeted with smiles by ABET’s Managing Artistic Director Ceila Frank and ABET board members.

fri21sep(sep 21)8:00 pmsun30(sep 30)4:00 pmFeaturedJAMES & THE GIANT PEACHNew ABET Location 8:00 pm - 4:00 pm (30) ALL BEACHES EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE

The opening show for the venue and the new season is “James and the Giant Peach”, a musical adaptation of a children’s book by Roald Dahl. He has written a number of children’s books; “Matilda” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were also adapted for the stage. The choice was excellent as it is a show appeals to both children and adults.

The show’s director is Lee Hamby, who is well known in this area as a director, designer, and actor. He is very much in demand for his talents and was the perfect choice for launching this endeavor. Lee is the managing director and founder of downtown Jacksonville’s highly successful 5 & Dime Theatre Company,

This delightful version of Dahl’s work was staged using a large screen on the back wall with projected images to provide the multiple settings, and recorded music. Amy Hancock’s colorful innovative costumes reflected a time and place filled with fantastic happenings. The large cast moved on and off stage with perfect timing.

The story is about James, an orphaned boy, performed wonderfully by Shauna Clark, who previously appeared in a number of productions at Jacksonville University. James is forced to live with two repulsive (but terribly funny) sisters Auntie Sponge (Leanne Gullo) and Auntie Spiker (Erin Barnes) who clearly have no maternal instincts whatever and make his life wretched by treating him as an unpaid menial laborer.

Life improves after he accepts a magic potion offered to him by Ladahlord (Brian Niece, who also acts as the play’s narrator). After James sprays an old fruit tree with the potion, the tree responds by growing a giant peach, and the aunts become very excited about the commercial possibilities of this wonder. However, when James tells him he made the peach grow, they don’t believe him and send him outside to sleep as a punishment for lying.

To escape the cold, James makes his way inside the peach and finds it inhabited by human-sized insects who become his friends. The colorfully garbed creatures include Jacob Pickering (Grasshopper), Christine Phillips (Ladybug), Gary Baker (Earthworm), Michael Yarick (Centipede), and Sade Crosby (Spider), and they all also want to escape from the aunts.

Centipede detaches the peach from the tree, and it rolls into the ocean. The group travels inside across the ocean evading sharks and other hazards, finally arriving in New York City with the help of friendly seagulls. They have survived many dangers, but learned teamwork, became the best of friends, and created a happy ending.

Cast members in the large ensemble appear in a number of smaller roles and are constantly on and off stage with props and costumes, which include those of the sharks and seagulls, as well as assorted crowd members. The ensemble included Kimberly Cooper York, Jack Niemczyk, Karen Couglin, Rhodie Jackson, Kenggy Bravo, Amanda Jackson and Bryan Martins.

Director Hamby has a noteworthy support team with Benjamin Beck (Music Director); Niki Stokes (Choreography); Amy Hancock (Costume Design); Jennifer O’Brien (Assistant Director/Stage Manager); Katie Cress (Light/Sound Operator); Bryan Frank (Light/Sound Design); and Jenn Peek and Frak Sanabria (Scenic Artists).

To close the evening ABET held a reception featuring delicious food and beverages, a tradition maintained for many years.

Many thanks go to the sponsors of this production: John and Beverly Johnson and The Tom Nehl Fund of the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida.

ABET is known for intimate theatre, and we can continue to expect many interesting productions in the future. “James” will remain on stage through September 30, followed by “Wait Until Dark” (October 26 —November 11). Call 249-7177 or visit abettheatre.com for tickets and additional information.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.