Even when life isn’t peachy, play tells kids, ‘you’re not alone’

by Erica Mixon / Beacon Correspondent • November 20, 2014

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For his seventh birthday, sophomore Michael Levine received a copy of a script adapted from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. As the years passed, it stayed on a shelf among other books he had enjoyed as a child. But when Levine returned home as an Emerson freshman last winter, he reread the script and found the tale to be a familiar one. 

“I realized that the journey [James] goes through to find this new family is something that I’ve experienced in college,” said Levine, a performing arts major. “I decided this was a really important message to send to children.” 

On Saturday, Nov. 15. and Sunday, Nov. 16, Kidding Around presented a production of James and the Giant Peach in the Cabaret. On Sunday, Nov. 23, the cast plans to perform the show in the Abbey Room at Boston Public Library for free.

James and the Giant Peach, a children’s book by Roald Dahl,centers around James Henry Trotter, an orphaned boy who escapes from his malicious aunt and uncle to journey to the center of a giant, magical peach, where he meets an array of friendly insects. 

Levine, who directed this adaptation written by Richard R. George, said he wanted the show to provide hope for kids who may be struggling with their lives at home. Kidding Around aims to educate children through the power of live theater.

Junior Katie Grindeland, the producer of the show, said that she hopes the Boston Public Library performance will attract more children than the Emerson performances. 

Although the BPL presentation will be more bare-bones, with no lighting or elaborate set pieces, Grindeland said that for kids, “it’s all about the story.” 

“We all have memories sitting on the floor, watching teachers or family members tell a story,” said Grindeland, a performing arts major. “We’re all just here to share something; we’re not trying to have a show, we’re trying to tell a story.” 

Levine said that he hopes the deliberately “lo-fi, scrapped-together” feel of the show makes it more accessible to children.

“It’s so clear that it’s not real,” Levine said. “It’s great for kids to see big touring shows, but sometimes they can get the idea that it’s not something they can do. When they see this, I hope they think, ‘that’s something that I could do.’” 

To that end, Grindeland said the troupe deliberately broke traditional theater rituals. Prior to the performance, cast members mingled with the audience. During the show, characters didn’t try to hide costume or set changes.

“It can be magic without us making illusions,” said Grindeland.  

That idea applied to the costumes, too. The centipede costume, for example, was a long coat with shoes attached to it. 

Kitty Lipski, the costume, makeup, and hair designer, said that she wanted audience members to have an “aha” moment.

“It’s important for kids to fill that in and use their imagination actively, instead of it being presented right to them,” said Lipski, a junior performing arts major. “Some performances give you everything.” 

Kidding Around’s James and the Giant Peach also included music that Emerson alumnus Patrick Greeley composed for the show, adapting Dahl’s writing into lyrics. Band members sat onstage for the duration the performance, often playing interludes that added a dramatic effect.

“For this sound, we weren’t going for polished,” Levin said. “We were going for a simple singer-songwriter feel, something that comes from the heart.”

The music, as a result, was simple but soulful, akin to folk bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers. The ending song, “Look Around,” was a heartwarming anthem with a message: you are never alone.

It was a message that Daniel Begin, who played the titular James, said he personally connected with.

“I’m glad I get to play James, because I related to him a lot,” said Begin, a junior performing arts major. “When I came to Emerson, I was the only freshman in a suite full of juniors.” 

Grindeland said she has received a lot of positive feedback about the ending song in particular. 

“As we’ve been walking around after the show, many people have approached me and said, ‘As an Emerson student, I can’t tell you how much I needed that last song at the end,’” said Grindeland. “A lot of shows are dramatic and awesome, but this is like a warm cup of tea that can be really helpful at this point in the year.”