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.