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James and the Giant Peach

Estella Kennedy and Maddie Quigley are double cast as Ladahlord. Photo from Karen Van Houten

Simple Gifts Productions is proud to present “James and the Giant Peach” on April 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. and April 13 at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Finley Middle School, 20 Greenlawn Road, Huntington. Based on the Roald Dahl children’s book, and with a great score by one of Broadway’s best duos, Pasek & Paul, this musical is a great event for the whole family. Tickets are $18 adults and $15 children (10 or younger). To reserve tickets, call 561-9522 or visit www.simplegiftsproductions.com.

From left, Danny Meglio, James D. Schultz, Kate Keating, Max Venezia, Samantha Carroll and Jacqueline Hughes in a scene from ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ Photo by Jennifer C. Tully

By Rita J. Egan

The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport is serving up a juicy treat with its newest children’s production “James and the Giant Peach.” Based on the classic Roald Dahl tale, the musical, under the direction of Jennifer Collester Tully, features a score by the Tony Award-nominated team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that alternates between the touching and the upbeat and the book by Timothy Allen McDonald that stays true to Dahl’s original magical story.

The whimsical musical captures the imaginations of theatergoers, both young and old, and the cast effortlessly transports the audience from the hero’s original dismal circumstances to a delectable adventure. As the story opens, we meet James Henry Trotter, an orphan, who has just discovered he can leave the orphanage where he has been staying to go live with his two aunts. The audience soon learns though that his new guardians are usually up to no good.

When the duo demand that James chop down a peach tree, while they spend the day at the beach, the young lad is visited by Ladahlord who reveals to him a special potion to use on the peach tree. Later, when it’s discovered the tree has produced a giant peach, the aunts scheme to make money off the oddity. However, their plans are foiled when James is pulled into an adventure with a colorful cast of friendly insects.

With the opening number, “Right Before Your Eyes,” the audience gets a delightful peek at the offbeat characters that will soon become part of James’ life. Michael Verre as Ladahlord, also serves as narrator in the production, and with his sweet tenor voice, lulls the theatergoers into a magical land where a giant peach can exist and change the life of a young man, right before their eyes.

Max Venezia, who played James on opening day, and alternates the role with Austin Levine, captures the gentle spirit of the protagonist, which is clear during his first number “On Your Way Home” in Act 1. Audience members can’t help but feel a bit of sadness for the little boy who no longer has a family to call his own.

Alyson Clancy as Aunt Sponge and Suzanne Mason as Aunt Spiker are so adept at their comedic abilities, with Clancy even taking out a can of whipped cream at one point, that they not only provide plenty of comic relief but they also make the audience forget just what terrible human beings these character really are. With numbers such as “Property of Spiker and Sponge,” “There’s Money on That Tree” and “I Got You” throughout the play, you can’t help but like the dastardly aunts thanks to Clancy and Mason.

The musical features some entertaining dance numbers, too. During the first act, Verre and Venezia share lead vocals in the lively number “Shake It Up.” While the ensemble joins in the vocals and choreography, Verre is the one who takes center stage with his impressive tap dancing skills.

As the second act opens, the audience discovers James has entered the peach and, along with the lad, meets the eclectic group of life-sized insects. There’s Ladybug played divinely by Kate Keating; Grasshopper portrayed dapperly by James Schultz; Spider presented stylishly by Samantha Carroll; and Danny Meglio as Earthworm embracing his character with thick reading glasses and just the right amount of pessimism for the whimsical adventure. In addition, actress Jacqueline Hughes is a standout as Centipede, as she convincingly portrays a male character like a street-smart newsboy.

The second act allows the actors who play the insects a chance to show off their acting and singing talents, and they don’t disappoint. They also receive a few giggles from the audience with their antics as they navigate their small quarters inside the rolling peach.    

While the critters may be surprised at first to share their space with a human, the number “Everywhere That You Are” shows the insects may have a soft spot for our hero. Led by Keating and Schultz, the bugs deliver the song with a tenderness that convinces you of the bonding with the boy, not only on stage but off as well.

The Earthworm also comes out of his bookish shell during the number “Plump and Juicy,” and Meglio and his fellow insects perform an entertaining number that eases the tension during a scary moment in the peach and adds just the right amount of goofiness that is always welcomed in a children’s musical. 

While trouble ensues when the giant peach and its passengers encounter sharks, seagulls and even impalement on the Empire State Building, James and his new friends conquer their fears and work together to save the day. The cast ends the show perfectly on an upbeat note with the song “Welcome Home,” and when all is said and done, we find that sometimes a sense of family can be unearthed in the most unusual places.

All involved with the Engeman’s “James and the Giant Peach” have produced a heartwarming and inspiring story that will keep children as well as adults entertained from beginning to end. It’s a perfectly peachy way to spend a weekend morning with the family.

The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, 250 Main St., as part of its Bethpage Federal Credit Union Youth Theater Series, will present “James and the Giant Peach” on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. through Nov. 8. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Austin Levine and Max Venezia are starring in James and the Giant Peach. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Before “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” before “Matilda” and even before “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Roald Dahl wrote the classic children’s novel, “James and the Giant Peach.”

The story follows the adventures of James Henry Trotter, an orphan who lives with his two mean aunts, Spiker and Sponge. Life for him is sad and lonely — until he meets a grasshopper, spider, earthworm, centipede and a ladybug aboard a giant, magical peach!

Now, over 50 years later, the story comes to life as a musical at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport on Oct. 3. Nearly 30 children auditioned for the role of James and ultimately two young actors, Max Venezia and Austin Levine, were chosen to share the role. Adult actors will play roles in the supporting cast.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing these amazing kids in between rehearsals at the Engeman’s Performing Arts Center across the street from the theater.

Max, whose favorite subject is math, is in the sixth grade at South Ocean Middle School in Patchogue. His path to become an actor began when he found out his friend Ava was taking voice lessons; so he started taking them too. His vocal coach later encouraged him to try out for a role in “Seussical” at Kids for Kids Productions in Oakdale. “That’s what my first show was and I’ve just loved it ever since,” he said.

At the young age of 11, Max already has an impressive resumé that includes roles in “The Music Man,” ”Gypsy” and as Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” “This will be my 22nd show,” said Max, whose most recent role was as part of Fagin’s Gang in “Oliver!” at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

Austin, who also loves math, is a sixth-grader at Commack Middle School. In second grade, he landed a role in “Annie” at the Suffolk Y in Commack and was immediately hooked. Since then, the 11-year-old has been in over 10 shows including “Mary Poppins,” “The Full Monty” and “Peter Pan” at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale.

Austin decided to audition for the role of James because “I had never done something at the Engeman and I wanted to because its nice to go try out, [to] go to different theaters.”

When preparing for the role, Max read “James and the Giant Peach” for the first time. “When I saw it, at my age, I thought this is creepy,” he said. Added Austin sheepishly, “I have not read the book — I should though.”

Austin’s favorite scene in the show includes the song “Shake It Up,” where James accidently spills a magic potion setting off a series of peculiar events.

Both Max and Austin said they enjoy working with the adult cast, which includes James D. Schultz, Alyson Clancy, Suzanne Mason, Michael Verre, Kate Keating, Samantha Carroll, Danny Meglio and Jacqueline Hughes.

“I love them. They are so fun to work with,” said Max, adding that he learns a lot from them and takes notes.

Austin agreed. “Because sometimes it’s hard to work with little kids because they are not mature [enough]. It’s a great learning experience,” he said.

Austin, who said he enjoys working with Max the most, usually does not get nervous during a show. “When it’s an audience of, like, 1,000 people and I can’t see them, I’m fine with that. It’s just when I can see them in person, it’s a little weird.”

Max’s favorite show on Broadway is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” while Austin said he favors “Mary Poppins” because “it is such a great story.”

Rehearsal has been every day after school, usually from 4 to 7 p.m. Max, who hopes to become “an actor and if not that, a teacher, probably either science or math,” does his homework in the car to Northport and on the ride home and sometimes stays up late to finish. Austin, who lives closer, likes to come home from school, relax, go to rehearsal, come home, eat, do his homework for two hours, go to sleep “and do the same thing over again the next day,” he laughed.

Both say their parents have been wonderfully supportive.

Director Jennifer C. Tully said the two boys were chosen because of “their amazing ability at such a young age to capture the sweetness and spunk of James.”

“Both [Max and Austin] are such talented young performers onstage and such genuinely good kids offstage. While both of them have put their own stamps on the role, they both exude the heart and joy that drives this beautiful production,” said James D. Schultz, who plays the role of the Grasshopper.

“I’m blown away by how hard they have worked and their very mature ability to create a rich and layered character,” added Tully. “It has been a pleasure!”

Come see Max and Austin and the entire cast of “James and the Giant Peach” at the John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, from Oct. 3 to Nov. 8.  Performances are on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

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