KINGSBURG – Sometimes family is where you find it. For James Henry Trotter, that family turns out to be a bunch of bugs.
In Reagan Elementary’s musical production of “James and Giant Peach, Jr.”, the main character James, played by Ava Irigoyen, finds himself in a sad predicament as his parents die and he’s sent off to be raised by two cruel aunts, Spiker and Sponge.
After a magical charm though, a barren tree produces a humongous peach. James finds a doorway to the center of the fruit where he meets a Centipede (Bryce Cornett), Earthworm (Karissa Asajian), Spider (Chloe Garcia) and Ladybug (Katie Bishop). Instead of finding loving acceptance by his two greedy aunts, played by Reygan Jones and Aubrey Turmon, James instead finds a new circle of support in the bugs that’ve been magically transformed along with the peach.
The musical is based on British author Roald Dahl’s 1961 children’s novel. Without giving away the ending, the young actors said being involved in the production is a magical experience in itself. And like the bugs and James in the show, they grow to develop their own sense of family in the months of rehearsal.
Sixth grader Madison Marquis serves as the narrator, Ladahlord, whose character is multi-faceted enough to also be a magician and then a seagull during the course of the show.
It’s her last year at Reagan and she’s been involved in their plays for three years already.
“I love theater because it makes me a new person,” Marquis said. In explaining the plot, Marquis said while both aunts may be greedy, it seems Spiker is the mastermind behind all their conniving of turning the giant peach into a curiosity show.
“They both want a lot of money. Spiker knows what’s she’s doing but Sponge is almost just a sidekick. They get 27 pounds a week to care for James, but they get money for people coming to look at the peach. But then, the peach rolls away and they get chased around by the crowd that wants their money back and stuff.”
As fantastic as “Peach” is, there are several messages that audience members can take to heart. Marquis said one of the life lessons she takes from the story is to be genuinely caring when dealing with family.
“I think the author’s trying to get people to realize they should treat each other right. Life’s not just about getting money so don’t be greedy.”
Fifth grader Ava Irigoyen is portraying James and is looking forward to dress rehearsals just before opening night on April 4. In her second year of acting, Irigoyen has played the caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland.” Taking on a new character is what draws her back to the stage.
“I like that we get to change out of ourselves into new characters and everybody’s happy and we’re all having fun.”
In “Peach,” it’s obvious to Irigoyen who really lives up the role of family. Likewise, in the production of the show, she said the students come together to become their own theater family.
“The aunts are selfish in the beginning. I think the audience will realize Spiker and Sponge are not the people they’re supposed to be. My character finds a new family and home with the insects.”
Reagan paraprofessional Kristal Johnston is assisting with the musical with sixth-grade teachers Nicole Grey and Jeanine Cornett overseeing the production.
Johnston said there are so many students who audition that they have to have tryouts in December. There are also backstage crew members who ensure the show runs smoothly.
“They don’t realize how important they are to the show until they get to work back stage. Then they realize they’re really important. We couldn’t do it without them.”
Aside from making sure the actors are in place and ready for their cue, backstage helpers also make sure the props are ready to go and learn how to operate the lighting and sound equipment.
“It’s a lot of work and what’s really cool is they all become a family because they have to work together,” Johnston said. “It’s about teamwork and it takes maturity. They’re all watching out for each other back there. They’ll be saying ‘you need to be ready to go’ or ‘where’s your basket?’ It’s great to watch them turning into like a little family.”
Aside from the student actors, family members also contribute by building and painting the sets.
“We have a family day where my husband and a bunch of the husbands bring their tools, cut everything out and get everything ready. Mrs. Cornett’s daughter, Riley, does all the painting. It’s quite the production.”
Cornett agrees it does take much family support to make their productions a success. She sees the shows as a creative outlet that gives kids the unique opportunity to build confidence.
“For most of them, this is their first experience on stage performing. It’s their first introduction to theater and musical theater.”
She notices some students are so shy at the beginning that they’re nervous to take part in charades exercises in front of each other. As rehearsals progress though, they break out.
“Now they’re up there singing and dancing and memorizing lines. They basically run the show. All of us directors could sit back here and the kids could run the show. That’s how good we get them to be. They’re very talented group of students so I’m really proud of them.”
And just like James and the bugs in “Peach,” they evolve into a family over the months of preparation for the show.
“For them to learn to support each other and work as a team is huge,” Cornett said. “They’ve learned the hard way when someone’s absent. It’s an a-ha moment where it’s really hard to do the show and they’re like ‘oh, I get it now.’ They’re like a family. They take care of each other. Thursday is opening night. I was nervous before, but today I’m really happy. They’re doing an amazing job and we could open tonight. I’m super proud of them.”