REVIEW: James and the Giant Peach - Studio Cast

Recording CoverAt some point over the last few years, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have developed into one of the finest songwriting teams of the “new musical theatre” generation. They moved from their first show, Edges, created while they were still in college and pleasing but also a little redundant in form, to the off-Broadway hit Dogfight, Tony- and Drama Desk- nominee A Christmas Story, larger national exposure with songs on Smash (and also in an Old Navy ad), and, with the release of a new cast recording, James and the Giant Peach.

Like all musicals, JATGP was in development for a while, with productions across the country. Close followers of Pasek and Paul were aware of the show before this spring. But the release of the cast album in April - currently available as a free download - alerted the broader public that there is another great Pasek and Paul musical available.

And what an album it is! Overabundant in Broadway stars, chock full of catchy melodies and refined harmonic language, brimming with wit and humor and heart, there is no excuse for this album to be missing from your collection. Hard as it may seem, the Broadway vets - Christian Borle, Megan Hilty, Mary Testa, Jackie Hoffman, Mar Kudisch, Brian d’Arcy James, to name a few - are icing on the proverbial cake. The varied, sophisticated score for JATGP does not need stunt casting to be successful, but I am grateful we can hear these singers on this material. And for free!

JATGP is based on Roald Dahl’s fantastical first young adult novel. Thematically, it shares some ideas with the other Roald Dahl musical currently running on Broadway. The score at hand, though, differs vastly. We hear a variety of styles - the show is very Broadway pastiche in that sense - that pay tribute to musical theatre while offering complex takes of rock, Latin, funk, and show tune styles. “Floating Along” is a jouncy ensemble tune led by Christian Borle; Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, fulfilling the roles of James’s child-hating aunts, have several zany duets, including the buddy song “I Got You”; “Everywhere That You Are” is a hopeful ballad (also heard in a solo bonus track by Megan Hilty). Each track offers surprises and blend seamlessly into the larger whole of the musical.

The highlight of the album is James’s act one feature. “Middle of a Moment” is a song that takes the influence of Stephen Schwartz and puts it in a more contemporary language. Luca Padovan, formerly of Newsies, belts this song with the ease of someone much older, and the result is absolutely thrilling. (This song is included as a bonus track performed by Skylar Astin, in a lower key; this song will soon be heard frequently on the cabaret circuit, and I pity the poor piano players who will have to sight-read this at an audition.) Songs like this make me grateful I turned off the play count on iTunes.

A few caveats: the digital download does not come with a precise listing of artists, so there is some guess work needed to figure out who is singing on what song. My digital download had some tracks misnumbered, putting some songs out of order; this may have been fixed by now. There also is no list of recording credits, including a lack of mention for the superb orchestrations (for 26 pieces!) by August Eriksmoen. Eriksmoen avoids making the score piano-heavy, a fate too often heard in contemporary musicals, and makes full use of the vast color palette afforded him by such a large orchestra. He deserves at least a mention on the album credits. (His work can currently be heard on Broadway in Gigi.) Those are small issues, though, and should not prevent anyone from downloading the album.

JATGP is currently licensed as part of Musical Theatre International’s Theatre for Young Audiences series (in three versions, for different age groups of the performers). Imagine being able to get this album for free (have I mentioned that it’s free yet?) as a child about to start rehearsals for this show. What great role models to listen to and learn from! And to be able to perform music that isn’t condescending; this is a fully mature and realized musical. Pasek and Paul did not write down for a younger audience. This album also sets a great example for others in the field: Pasek and Paul are not only on the forefront of writing musical theatre; with this show and album, they’re leading the way in exposing younger generations to the art form.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are among the most successful songwriters of their generation, and the most sophisticated. They’ve mastered the art of writing in various styles and genres - heard here to full effect - as well as writing contemporary tunes that fit in the current musical theatre genre. They’ve mastered the art of editing and letting songs breathe, unlike some of their contemporaries. In many ways, they are the contemporary composers that we need more of. Their sophisticated harmonies and lyrics, their ability to blend and blur styles, and the clear structure of their songs make for memorable scores such as James and the Giant Peach. It is fortunate that we have this team writing scores with the verve and energy needed in musical theatre.


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