When a magic potion creates a gigantic peach, and that peach falls from the tree and rolls into the ocean, an adventure awaits. That adventure includes singing insects, hunger, sharks and disagreements galore. And James is at the center of it.
The story comes to life onstage Jan. 18-Feb. 16 when Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre presents “James and the Giant Peach Jr.” at its location inside Scottsdale Fashion Square.
Based on the children’s classic by Roald Dahl, the musical is written by Timothy Allen McDonald, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The Desert Stages production is co-directed by Kristin Alba and Erin Tarkington. Having two directors for a show may seem a bit unusual, but that doesn’t bother either of them.
“Kristin and I are truly the perfect team,” says Tarkington. Alba agrees. They come from the same background, and both grew up performing at Desert Stages before moving into the co-directing position.
“Our friendship began at the theater,” says Tarkington, “learning from the same role models, which means that our love for theater stems from the same roots and inspirations. We have been best friends for over 10 years, and it is remarkable how often we feel like one united mind with the same vision.”
Alba concurs. “It’s great to have another creative mind to bounce ideas off of,” she says. Prior to rehearsals, she and Tarkington get together to plan the dances or scenes they’ll be working on that day “to make sure we are on the same page.” Being best friends, according to Alba, “makes the experience even more enjoyable. We love every moment of directing together.”
Alba believes the Desert Stages show is special for many reasons, among them the size of the young cast: More than 45 performers ranging in age from 4 to 15 years old. “Our production is able to highlight the skills and talents of such a diverse group of performers, and we are so proud of what these talented kids and teens are able to accomplish,” she says.
One of those young actors is Xander Zeeb, who plays James in the Sunday performances. The 13-year-old seventh-grader at Scottsdale’s Mohave Middle School has been in 19 Desert Stages productions and recently received a National Youth Arts Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance (Junior Division) for his portrayal of twins Ben and Lisa in “Disaster!”
“When I was four, my dad read the book ‘James and the Giant Peach’ to me,” he says. “I remember how fun the story was and how I wished I could be in a giant peach like James, and now I am!” He considers Desert Stages a second home and says he loves being onstage and entertaining audiences. His favorite part of the production is the showstopper number called “Plump and Juicy.” “It’s so fun to perform that song!”
He also says that he especially enjoys that he gets to share the role of James with one of his closest friends. Thirteen-year-old Ethan Roga plays James in the Saturday performances. “I’ve been pursuing my passion for theater at Desert Stages for over three years now,” Ethan says. “I love to act, dance and sing.” This will be his 11th show.
The junior version of the production removes some of the songs and modifies a few scenes, so that the show is somewhat shorter than the original. Alba believes this “is great for families, including young children because it is a shorter time to sit!”
The cast performs four shows a weekend 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, “which is perfect for younger audiences and families looking for morning entertainment,” Tarkington says.
“Seeing a live performance is truly magical,” says Alba. “Watching the music, choreography, characters, and story all mix together to entertain an audience is something that is so special about theater.” She hopes audiences will leave in a better mood than they came with. “For our younger audience members, I’m hopeful that some of them may even be inspired to get on stage themselves and join us at one of our future auditions.”
The musical is “full of catchy music, groovy dance moves, and whimsical characters that will make you smile, laugh, and maybe even cry,” Tarkington says. “You will be singing the songs for weeks after seeing the show!”