James And The Giant Peach

The Chichester Festival Theatre, Tuesday 18 December 2007

 

Review by Emma Shane

© 23 December 2007

 

Why is that music in the British Theatre is in such a state that even living in London one has to go to Chichester if one wants to hear really top quality new musical theatre? I don’t know the answer, something to do with musicals being perceived to be “commercial” and therefore not being awarded funding, when in fact much really good quality stuff is not mainstream enough for investment either. Thank goodness then for The Chichester Festival Theatre. Having previously seen the musicals The Waterbabies, and, Six Pictures Of Lee Miller, as well as the play The Master And Margarita here, I knew enough about composer Jason Carr’s work to know that the score for James And The Giant Peach, adapted by David Wood ought to be good.

Yes, musically the show started with, Big Apple, which had a surprisingly rock-like sound to it. Quite a 1960s sort of rock-and-roll, type piece (kind of in the style of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey), possibly with a bit of R&B thrown in for good measure, swirled around with a hefty slug of Leonard Bernstein (a la West Side Story). With the possible exception of the Bernstein influence, mostly not the kind of thing one would expect from Jason Carr’s pen. Nevertheless it is still very good music. When Jason Carr does something rock and pop orientated you can bet it will be good pop, the kind that even people who don’t usually like pop in their theatre music will appreciate. He just doesn’t write rubbish. His music for this piece also fits in very well with Rose Ryan’s choreography. The company soon establish that they can dance reasonably well, and this even included Break-dancing. Surely a first, break dancing to Carr’s music! Still if break dancing can be done to Tchaikovsky (as it once was in Birmingham) then why not.

Presently a guided tour in Central Park stops by the Peach Stone. Older James and friends come out of their house. They introduce themselves in song. Here we get a nice tuneful, piece, to which the Old Green Grasshopper in particular dances gracefully to. Older James begins to tell the story. At this some of the chorus exit, while others (from among the tour party) remove capes to become characters early in the story, by the seaside.

There is of course a live band, conducted by Jenny Gould, they are positioned in the musicians gallery above the stage.

The action switches briefly to Regent Street, where a crocodile of eight actors represent a Rhinoceros stampeding down the street. This of course is accompanied by highly suitable music from the band. I never saw Chichester’s legendary musical adaptation of Ioneasco’s Rhinoceros, Born Again, but given just who composed the score for that, I can’t help but wonder whether any musical themes have been incorporated into this segment.

 

Moving on to the introduction of the Aunts, their introductory number starts with a very distinctive Spanish-sounding  intro. The kind of musical theme which I am sure neither Shostakovich or Khachaturin would have dared write; though Shchedrin would, and Carr now has. But then one of Jason Carr’s characteristics as a composer, is just how clearly influenced he is by the great theatre composers (in this particular instance Bizet), while at the same time mixing it all together in his own particular tuneful way. The scene’s with the Aunts quickly move musically into the more characteristically Poulenc-inspired pieces similar in style to Carr’s incidental music for plays.

The Old Man who enters with the bag of Marvellous Things has a pleasant soft Yorkshire accent, as with Grimes and Tom in The Waterbabies, I couldn’t help wondering why? (Was it anything to do with the composer being a Yorkshireman?) Marvellous Things as a song finds Carr being as beautiful and lyrical. How many theatre composers these days actually write beautiful lyrical melodies like that? Not very many I’ll warrant.

The peach growing is symbolised by a large peach-shaped balloon/rubber ball type thing which is inflated to hang from the tree. It is later (at the end of Act 1 carried around the auditorium by a stage hand). I can’t recall if the Peach Visitors coming to view the peach had a song, though I rather think they may have done, or at least music.

James slipping outside in the evening (while his aunts’ are counting their money) meets the creatures who become his friends. I think they may have introduced themselves partly in song. It’s interesting to see how a single tune can vary from verse to verse. Carr is one of those fine composers like Sondheim and Porter who is adept at making these clever little interesting variations. Eventually the Old Green Grasshopper climbs up onto the stalk to bit through it, The characters all sing about going Away From This Awful Hill, away from old spiker and Sponge. This is a very tuneful hummable melody. Like Gerhswin and Porter before him Carr clearly knows the value of a hummable Act 1 finale, what could be a better inducement for an audience to come back for the second half.

 

Act 2 opens with the peach rolling away, inside it the characters are still tumbling around. Here the band play appropriate stormy music to signify this, it actually reminded me very vaguely of The storm which opened the second act of The Waterbabies. Presently The Peach comes to rest floating on water. Seagulls circle around, as the friends clamber out to view their new surroundings. Presently the peach comes under attack from a shoal of sharks. I am rather amused by how the music takes on a Bernstein-like quality, just slightly reminiscent of West Side Story. Is that a witty musical in-joke? Knowing Carr’s style, it could be. Carr is very much like Porter and Sondheim, and possibly Gershwin in this respect. The Shark attack seems to abate somewhat while the friends decide what to do about it. As they set to work with Miss Spider’s silk to make ropes for the seagulls to pull the peach clear of the water, they sing, a sort of cross between a sea-chantey, and Cole Porter. Well it did remind me ever so slightly of an obscure Cole Porter song (I was only lucky enough to hear just once), Carborundum (about working in a factory – each of the characters singing it had their own special place on the assembly line to sing). This song works in a similar structure with each character singing their job in turn. The seagulls renter, more of them this time, some on stilts. Their pulling the peach clear of the sharks is symbolised with a trapeze being lowered towards it. This is followed by James and the Earthworm sitting alone up outside the peach complementing each other on saving the situation. They find they are rather hungry, then James has an idea, why don’t they eat a bit of the peach. The others join in, and the Centipede (backed by the others) launches into a ear worm of a song about This Delicious Peach. I did not much care for the lyrics myself, although I could see that they were very clever (Carr is as good with witty list lyrics as people like Cole Porter, and, Dick Vosburgh once were). And these ones very much fitted the whole theme of a Roald Dahl musical. Like Alan J Lerner before him, one of Carr’s talents as a lyricist is an ability to craft his lyrics very carefully to his subject matter, that they fit like a glove. For example in Six Pictures Of Lee Miller the lyrics sung by the character of Pablo Picasso really did sound as if they were Picasso’s own. Here Carr makes sure his lyrics take on Roald Dahl’s voice. 

Back to the plot, a Captain, and his Number One and Number Two enter just inside one of the auditorium gangways (over to Stage Left). The Captain spots the peach, flying, as is afraid it might be an enemy object. He wants to “send a message to The Queen” (that made me laugh a lot – because I couldn’t help but think of Spitting Image – well the first time I came to this theatre was to see that TV show’s Leading puppeteer in a musical here). Anyway Number One and Number Two, not seeing the peach think the Captain is drunk, and take him off to the ship’s doctor, before he can try and shoot it down. Over on the peach there is a drama as the overconfident centipede manages to fall off into the water, but James gets Miss Spider to spin him a life-line, reaches over and hauls him back to safety. This doesn’t do much to dent the centipede’s arrogance. After this little adventure the peach flies much higher up into the clouds, where partly thanks to the arrogant centipede being so noisy, the Cloud People pelt them with hailstones. I think there was a song at this point. Well certainly there was music. Pleasant and tuneful, exactly what one would expect with Carr. At last, passing the Cloud People, whom they observe painting a rainbow, they come insight of land, America. As one of them exclaims “We’ve crossed the Atlantic on a peach!”. an attempt to cut a few seagulls loose, to let the peach descend gently is thwarted by an aeroplane slicing the threads. They have to get a gathering crowd to blowhot air instead. And they land on the Empire State Building. How often is that a feature of musicals? (well think of On The Town). The friends are given a star’s welcome to New York, the children in the crowd devour the peach, leaving only the stone, and the show ends with the whole company on stage reprising that earworm of a song about ‘This delicious peach’.

 

All in all quite a short slight musical, unlike Carr’s earlier show in this very auditorium The Waterbabies which was whole family entertainment (one did not feel it was particularly substance depth to it), James And The Giant Peach is much more ostensibly a children’s musical. It is with this show that Carr proves he can write for children just as well as Stiles And Drewe (the latter day successors to Disney’s fabled Sherman Brothers) can. Although if you know where to look, one can find decent musical theatre composers day, Carr is one of the best, because he has such an incredible range. His score for James And The Giant Peach certainly brings out sides to his compositions that I had no idea existed, such as an ability, when required to come up with a good rock-style piece. Yet he is also one of the few people nowadays who is a real tunesmith, writing catchy humable melodies, which if this were 1970s New York you’d have the newsboys on every street corner whistling. Nowadays I doubt you’d find newspaper sellers or anyone whistling songs from music theatre in the street, yet if they were to do so, Carr’s tunes would be perfect. Because Carr just doesn’t write rubbish. The only reason some critics dismiss his tunes as unmemorable, is simply because (thanks to both Lloyd-Webber and co’s habit of releasing their cast albums before their show’s take to the stage, and the prevalence for pop-group back-catalogue shows) theatregoers today have forgotten how to really listen to genuinely new music that they have never heard before. Yet I had part of the tune for the song about ‘this delicious peach’ stuck in my head for days afterwards. Like Irving Berlin before him Jason Carr can write musical theatre songs to fit almost any style and subject required; with considerably superior musical skill to Berlin. (Berlin always needed someone to do his arrangements to say the least, whereas Carr of course is not only very good at arranging his own work, he also frequently earns his living arranging other peoples). Overall although I felt that James And The Giant Peach demonstrated additions to Carr’s range as a composer that I didn’t know where there, as a score it was not quite in the same league as Six Pictures Of Lee Miller. But then Lee Miller was such a perfect score that even a genius such as Carr would be hard put to match that particular score. It is quite understandable that with any great music theatre composer some shows will be better than others, and the show that follows a real triumph is nearly always going to be a difficult one (Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Julian Slade and the Gershwins all had difficulties with shows that followed a tour de force). However, just like those guys, Jason Carr is such a terrific composer, that even his less good scores are still excellent, and so much better than many of his lesser contemporaries best work.

Yet it isn’t just musicals, as a composer he has such a wide-ranging scope as a theatre composer. For those of us who are tired of hearing dull, modern pop trash, Carr’s music is just a brilliant. A real breath of fresh air. I’d like to hear him given some proper opportunities in the West End: as a musical Theatre composer of course – but that can be difficult economical, although his work might suit the fringe better. Then there’s his incidental music for plays, the late Steven Pimlott employed him on a number of occasions, most recently Rose Tattoo, one hopes that other directors of plays take note. But as a composer Jason Carr is something special, given the chance he has the potential to up there with the best. I think companies like The Royal Opera House should be taking a serious look at his work. Just think what he could achieve given the proper opportunity.

Take for example ballet composers. In the mid twentieth century there were many fine modern composers writing for the ballet, in Britain it was people like Arthur Bliss, and Constant Lambert (the latter was also a notable arranger), in Germany it was Hans Werner Henze, while in Russia there were such greats as Aram Khachaturin, Rodion Shchedrin, and, Dmitri Shostakovich. Nowadays if a ballet has new music it tends to be by such horrors as Andy Cowton, Thom Willems, and Tricky Pumpkin. The quality of Bliss, Henze, Khachaturin, Shchedrin, Shostakovich, and possibly Lambert is all to absent. When companies like The Royal produce new ballets they fall back on existing music by classical composers such as Chopin, Janacheck, Mahler, Poulenc, and, Prokofiev. And yet if British Music Theatre composers such as Noel Coward and Arthur Sullivan, not to mention Malcolm Arnold and Richard Rodney Bennett could write decent ballet music then one wonders, given the chance, could Jason Carr?

                Anyway, even if you are not into Roald Dahl, it is worth going to see James And The Giant Peach just to hear a decent well written tuneful score. The young actors playing the Friends (Alex Jordan, Cleo Pearson, Will McGovern, Bathsheba Piepe, and, Alfie Jones) all connect well with the music. Indeed, I think that Bathsheba Piepe and Alex Jordan in particular really do have potential as musical theatre performers. Let’s hope that their future career’s may include some more of Jason Carr’s delightful tunes.

 

 

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Off Site Links:

The Chichester Festival Theatre’s Official Website: http://www.cft.org.uk/

 

Composer Jason Carr’s Official Website: http://www.jasoncarr.org.uk/

 

To read my review of another Jason Carr musical at Chichester, The Water Babies, please click here.

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