Vancouver actors Scott Bellis and Jonathan Winsby have both recently wrapped up major productions: Bellis played Bishop Cauchon in the Arts Club Theatre’s mounting of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, while Winsby was a constable in Les Misérables at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre. Now the two are preparing for something entirely different, both playing insects in Carousel Theatre for Young People’s upcoming musical James and the Giant Peach.
Bellis takes on the role of the jaded, angry centipede; Winsby is the earthworm, a likable fellow with a plethora of phobias. If the material from the Roald Dahl book is lighter than that of their most recent efforts, the men say that the preparation involved is no less demanding.
“Theatre is always an examination of what is most important to the characters that are on-stage,” Bellis says in an interview along with Winsby during a rehearsal break on Granville Island. “When you watch a character on-stage, you want to get inside them, and the easiest way to get inside them is to figure out what they really, really want more than anything else. As the actor, your job is to find out what that is and present that.
“You’re working as diligently as you can with whatever the material is to tell that story,” he adds. “You’re engaged moment to moment.”
By the sounds of things, audiences will be as well, and not just because James and the Giant Peach is one of the most popular children’s books of all time. The musical, developed by Tony-nominated songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is the most ambitious production CTYP has done to date. (Pasek and Paul will be attending on opening night.) Besides its estimable cast, the show marks the first time the theatre company has ever had live musicians on-stage. Then there’s the breadth of the story itself.
After a tragic zoo incident claims the lives of his parents, James is forced to live with his abusive aunts, Spiker and Sponge. His luck changes when an old man appears in his back yard and offers him a packet of magical crocodile tongues, saying something extraordinary will happen if he follows a set of instructions. He spills the things instead, leading to the growth of an enormous peach on a previously barren tree. When James enters a hole at the bottom of the fruit and makes his way to the pit at the centre, he meets an array of odd creatures, including the earthworm and centipede as well as a spider and a fiddle-playing grasshopper. After the centipede chews the stem away from the tree, the peach begins to roll and eventually tumbles off a cliff into the Atlantic Ocean, when the group’s adventures really begin.
Although the 1961 book still enraptures young readers, it’s also on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2001. It’s been subject to numerous bans for being too scary for its target age group and for containing profanity, racism, mysticism, sexual inferences, and references to drugs and alcohol.
While Carousel’s version doesn’t include all of the book’s original gory details, Winsby says there’s a reason it’s suggested for kids aged six and up, and not any younger.
“The rhinoceros is in the show,” Winsby says, referring to the animal that’s responsible for the death of James’s parents. “And that’s something that four-year-olds aren’t going to get. It’s not dark, but there are dark elements. The ants in the book are evil. Here, they’re horrible, but they’re also comedic. They sing this song at the end about how devoted they are to each other.
“There’s a lot of energy in the show,” he notes. “It’s like a Pixar show in the sense that there are thing only the parents will get, that will go right over the kids’ heads. There’s a real liveliness and it’s heartwarming, even though there are a couple of moments that just break your heart.”
Adding to the show’s vigour is the three-piece band that will join the cast on-stage, with keyboards, percussion, and electric bass.
James and the Giant Peach is the first production Winsby has ever done with CTYP, and it’s a relationship he hopes will continue for years to come (especially since his three nieces, to whom he’s dedicating his performance, are too young to attend). For Bellis, it marks a return to his early days as an actor, when he did several theatre pieces for young audiences.
“I usually do a lot of classical work and contemporary drama, new Canadian plays with swear words in them,” Bellis says. “The opportunity to come back and work for Carousel is attractive to me because, as much as I love the other work, I also enjoy the chance to present theatre to kids and hopefully get them interested in it as an art form.
“If there’s something we can help our kids with in today’s world, it’s how to engage them on a real level, not on a virtual level,” he says. “And it’s just so much fun.”
James and the Giant Peach runs at the Waterfront Theatre from Saturday (December 6) to January 4.