James & the Giant Peach is a fantastically imaginative and magical modern fable that the stage at Pit & Balcony Community Theatre will serve as a portal for transporting audiences of all ages into the colorful and creative world occupied by characters such as Old-Green Grasshopper, Centipede, Ladybug, and Earthworm, as James and his cohorts tell the story of how they came to live in a giant peach stone in Central Park, New York.
Slated to run from January 25-27th and February 1-3rd, this classic novel for children, written by author Roald Dahl in 1961, marked the beginning of his prolific career as a children’s author, which also included contemporary milestones such as Gremlins; and begins at the end of the story, when a tour guide brings a party of tourists (the audience) to witness their epic account of how they came to journey across the Atlantic Ocean, acted out with live action, puppetry, and storytelling in this masterful adaptation by playwright David Wood.
Dahl wrote James & the Giant Peach in the orchard of his home in the Buckinghamshire countryside, where there was a cherry tree. Seeing this tree made him wonder: what if, one day, one of those cherries kept on growing bigger and bigger? Eventually he settled on a giant peach as the method for James’ magical journey; and 50-plus years later, it still stands strong as a contemporary classic.
In terms of narrative, the play centers around 4-year old James Henry Trotter, who lives with him parents in a beautiful cottage by the sea in the south of England, until his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros that escaped from the London Zoo. As a result, he is forced to live with two cruel and abusive aunts, Spiker & Sponge, in a rundown house on a high, desolate hill near the White Cliffs of Dover. For three years, James is treated as a drudge, beaten for no reason, improperly fed, and forced to sleep on bare floorboards in the attic as well as being insulted with crude names.
One summer afternoon, after a particularly upsetting altercation with his aunts, James stumbles across a mysterious stranger, who gives him magic green "crocodile tongues" which, when drunk with water, will bring him happiness and great adventures. On the way to the house, James spills the crocodile tongues onto a barren peach tree, which then produces a single peach that grows to nearly the size of a house.
The next day, the aunts sell tickets to neighbors and tourists to see the giant peach while James watches from the window of his room in which he is locked up, to prevent him from getting in the way of his aunts' business. And from this point forward, the magical mysteries unfold through characters of the ‘Insect-World’ whom James encounters - each resplendent with their own unique wisdom and vision of the world, as we embark upon their journey.
For first-time director Hope Nagy, who first became involved with Pit & Balcony during their 2015 production of RENT, her excitement and vision for bringing this challenging work to the stage is infectious. “I always wanted to get my thoughts and creativity onto the stage, so having this vehicle to direct is an incredible opportunity.”
Insofar as all great children’s fantasies have darker themes woven into the narrative, from the Wizard of Oz to David Copperfield, Hope relates the darker themes in James & the Giant Peach to Harry Potter. “Basically, James is this orphan boy living with these horrible people; and through his journey and experiences with the characters he meets in the insect--world, he becomes a problem solver, which is huge theme for children to learn,” she reflects. “Plus, through the character development between James and the insects, it shows how to figure, feel and express different emotions, which is also important.”
“I definitely want to frame this production thematically as a fantasy,” continues Hope, “because inherently it is designed to put a smile on your face; but when I ask the actors how their character feels towards another, you learn especially through a character like the Earthworm, that you can’t judge a book by its cover. All the other insects are excited about their journey and I think it’s important to emphasize individual character development, and how they feel about other characters, because it brings everything together as they learn to accept each other. Each actor has challenges going on within their character, which I love about this work.”
As a director, Hope says the most challenging component of this production is dealing with a lot of moving parts within both the set and the story. “I want to keep the narrative very clean,” she states. “Personally, I enjoy something very readable and the story can’t get lost in translation on stage. All the themes and characters are being delivered very clean and in their box, so everybody understands the full show; and the same thing is true with the blocking.”
“25 young actors showed up for auditions and most of the cast is under sixteen years of age,” notes Hope. “Our cast consists of 12 actors and they are blowing my socks off. One month into rehearsal and they take notes better than the pros; and they’re young enough not to have developed any bad habits, plus they are very excited and passionate about their work. They ask a lot of questions and are like sponges, soaking every bit of knowledge in and then moving on to the next thing.”
The cast consists of 11-year old Daniel Barnes in the lead role of James; Isiah Barnes as the Green Grasshopper and narrator (no relation to Daniel); Mary Kolleth as Miss Spider; Gina Kearly as Centipede; Audrey Espinoza as Ladybird; Declan Arthur as Earthworm; Samanta Stricker as Aunt Sponge/Mrs. Trotter; and Elijah Feinauer as Aunt Spiker/Mr. Trotter. The ensemble with feature roles consists of Ava Mata, Carmen Mata, Charles Olk and Nicklaus Sturm.
“The set design is also quite challenging,” concludes Hope. “At first we wanted the giant peach to move, but realized that’s not the safest idea, so now we’ll have it rotating; plus when the waves come in from the ocean, I’d like to give movement to them; but it’s a very interesting set. I’m hoping the light and sound is vibrant and vivid because that really ropes you into the magic of the show.”
“Plus, it is important to realize that this production will be equally appealing to adults as children. The script is really funny, as is the way the actors are delivering it.”
James & the Giant Peach will be showcased at Pit & Balcony Theatre from January 25-27 and February 1-3rd at 7:30 pm on Fridays & Saturdays, with 3:00 pm Sunday matinees. Tickets are $20.00 and available at the box office or by phoning 989.754.6587 or visiting PitandBalconyTheatre.com.
16th November, 2023