When you get to work on a musical as imaginative as “James and the Giant Peach,” there’s room to be creative.
Randy Peters, who assisted resident costumer Karen Sowienski for the upcoming production at Lamb Arts Regional Theatre, was in charge of bringing the show’s bug characters to life through puppetry and clever costume design. In the musical, these invertebrates are portrayed by both hand puppets and then eventually actors. Peters created puppets for the centipede, grasshopper, spider, ladybug and earthworm.
In the musical – adapted from the 1961 Roald Dahl book of the same name – the bugs transform to the size of humans when they become enchanted by magical crocodile tongues, which were given to a boy named James by a mysterious stranger. These magical tongues were supposed to bring James happiness from his repulsive and abusive aunts, but they were spilled by a nearby peach tree when he was on his way home. A peach sprouts from the tree and grows to an enormous size, as do the bugs which currently inhabit the seed. James joins his invertebrate companions and escapes from his aunts to go on a life changing adventure.
“The show lends itself beautifully, because it has fabulous characters that are very weird and eccentric,” said Peters. “The ensemble plays lots of different characters and the peach travels all around the world, so you see it in different locations. It’s a giant peach that Michael Rohlena designed, so the set design is just beautiful.”
When building the actual puppets, Peters wanted continuity in the color schemes and designs to translate to the cast’s portrayal of the bugs.
Apart from their human characteristics – seen prominently in the 1996 live action/stop-motion film adaptation in the form of Mrs. Ladybug’s purse and Earthworm’s blindness glasses – Peters used the same fabric and patterns prevalent in the hand puppets and included them in the costumes. The movie, he added, provided a great deal of inspiration when it came to the design of the costumes and puppets.
“In the movie, the spider in particular is this beautiful French spider with a little beret,” he said. “We’re certainly going to carry through some of those themes because a lot of people will be familiar with the movie. And this is the fully staged Broadway production. So we’ve pulled inspiration from all those resources.”
Work for the puppets began nearly a month before the opening of “James and the Giant Peach.” Peters said the actors operate the puppets in the first act, before the crocodile tongue transformation. Creating puppets was a first for Peters, who had previously served as artistic director for the Betty Ling Tsang Summer Fine Arts Series at Morningside College.
“I’ve never made puppets before, so it was a really fun experiment,” said Peters. “They’re all soft sculptures. I made them out of foam and nylon netting. They were challenging just to get the form. Because they’re puppets and they’re used a lot, they have to be made really well to withstand that many rehearsals and performances.”
Though the biggest challenge, he added, came from the costumes. The 15-person ensemble changes clothes “six or eight times” throughout the show, taking on characters aboard a cruise ship or the garden club or special agents.
“In a show like this, the biggest challenge is to economize and be able to coordinate that many people,” said Peters. “It’s a very collaborative effort. Everyone involved in costumes, we get together and we meet in the evenings and go, ‘Oh! This would look really good with this’ or ‘Let’s try this!’ It’s made it a fun place to work.”