YouTheatre sails away with ‘James and the Giant Peach’ at the Egyptian Theatre
What: “James and the Giant Peach, Jr.”
When: 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 7, and Saturday, Dec. 8; 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, and Sunday, Dec. 9
Where: The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St.
Cost: $18 for adults and $13 for youths ages 17 and younger
While director Missy Hilton has an idea of how she wants the Egyptian Theatre’s YouTheatre production of “James and the Giant Peach, Jr.” to look and be performed, she also relies on her cast for inspiration.
“I’m a very collaborative director, and one of my goals is to strike a balance between having a clear vision of what I want with getting the kids involved in the process,” Hilton said. “There have been many times when I’ve had an idea for something, and then one of the kids will come up with another idea that makes it better.”
The family-friendly musical, which features music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, will run from Friday, Dec. 7, through Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Egyptian Theatre. It is based on Roald Dahl’s 1961 children’s book, “James and the Giant Peach.” The story follows James, an orphan, who finds adventure with a group of singing insects as he deals with his greedy aunts.
“The story is funny, sad and touching,” she said. “It’s always touching when you take parents out of the mix and have a child become stronger after learning life lessons through friends and bad people. That all makes for a good story about resilience.”
While Hilton hasn’t seen the Broadway production, she loves Dahl, who is also known for his novels “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda” and the screenplay for the James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice.”
“My own kids have a compilation of all the books he ever wrote, and I love the fantasy and the fun way he writes,” Hilton said. “He makes you laugh, but there are always some darker themes that make children think. I mean, who would have thought about writing a book about a giant peach that floated in the ocean and insects that turn into people?”
Hilton knew bringing the story to life would rely on how the young actors, who age range from 10 to 16 in age, portray the characters.
James is played Chelsea Cowley.
“At 16, she’s one of the more mature cast members,” Hilton said. “Chelsea has chops like few kids her age. She can sing beautifully. She’s a dancer and just gives it her all. Since James is a large role, we wanted to give it someone who can handle it.”
Hilton said Cowley’s interpretation of James works because of the interaction with the courage of the other actors, some of whom have never acted before.
“These kids are willing to put themselves out there on the Egyptian Theatre stage for everyone to see,” she said.
To make sure more people can see these talented kids, Hilton finds opportunities to showcase the cast as much as possible.
“Even if a scene doesn’t require the whole cast to be on stage, I try to find a way to do it,” she said. “We also make sure we give everyone a line.”
The director decided to do that because of how dedicated the cast is.
“The rehearsal process is nothing short of grueling,” she said. “The kids come in twice a week and a full day on Saturday, and they learn choreography, music, blocking and their lines. That’s quite a bit, so I want to make this worth their while.”
The roles are further highlighted with choreography by Chantelle Wells, singing led by music director Robyn VanLeigh and costumes by designer Candy Summerhays.
“Chantelle puts together these numbers that are out of this world and great to watch, and Candy is an amazing seamstress,” Hilton said. “She puts her costumes, which go well with hairstyles and makeup, together through things she finds at thrift stores and her imagination.”
VanLeigh, a soprano who performs with the Utah Opera, not only teaches the kids how to deliver the notes, but also teaches them about breath control and delivery, according to Hilton.
“All of it is held together with our stage manager Sammee James,” she said.
One of Hilton’s favorite scenes is when James sings “On Your Way Home” towards the beginning of the production.
“It kind of sets the whole production up,” she said. “When people hear Chelsea sing, they are going to blown away because of her talent. In fact, everyone who sees the production will be blown away by the whole cast. They bring so much to the table. They are so gung-ho and with it.”
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