Fort Wayne Youtheater can never be accused of shying away from a challenge. Or from controversy. Recent productions include Remembering Anne, The Kid from Kokomo: The Ryan White Story, Ruby Bridges and Lord of the Flies.
The first three in that list, part of a series called Young Heroes of Conscience, were written and directed by Fort Wayne playwright Gregory Stieber and centered on the lives of three real children and the very real challenges they faced. Stieber and the young actors of Fort Wayne Youtheater approached the stories – a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis with her family, a young white boy living and dying with AIDS and a young black girl breaking through walls of school segregation – in an unflinching yet sensitive way.
Now Stieber and Youtheater actors turn their sights on a fictional English boy and his trials and adventures inside an enormous piece of fruit. With their production of the Roald Dahl classic James and the Giant Peach, Stieber and his cast and crew work through the challenges presented by a modern fairy tale.
The play is part of Fort Wayne Youtheater’s 4th Annual Fairy Tale Fest, which is Saturday, May 13. The performance of James and the Giant Peach begins at 10 a.m.
Like a lot of fairy tales, James and the Giant Peach begins with tragedy, runs through horrible abuse and emerges in courage and triumph.
Stieber, who adapted the book rather than the movie or the musical, says the story has a lasting appeal.
“James is orphaned by his parents on the very first page of the book and then is sent to live with his aunts who beat him and starve him,” Stieber said. “It’s one of those books that people of my generation, or maybe the generation before, read when they were little kids. It’s one of those books you read as a kid and keep going back to when you’re not a kid anymore and you end up sharing with the next generation.”
The story, for those unfamiliar, finds 4-year-old James sent to live with his cruel aunts after his parents are killed by a rampaging rhinoceros during a shopping trip to London. The aunts, Spiker and Sponge, force James to do all the chores, beat him, barely feed him and make him sleep on the floor of the attic. One day he meets a stranger who gives him magic crocodile tongues which, when consumed, will give James a life of wonder and adventure.
But he drops them near a dead peach tree, and overnight a single peach begins to grow and grow and grow. His aunts, sensing a money-making opportunity, sell tickets to witness the magic peach which eventually grows as big as a house. James finds a tunnel into the peach, climbs inside and meets the curious creatures living there, and the adventure begins.
Despite the presence of a giant magical peach and seven human-sized magical garden creatures, the book, when it was published in 1961, managed to draw the attention of censors who flinched at its sometimes brutal and macabre content.
While Dahl set the book in contemporary 1961 England, Stieber decided on a different era for his adaptation.
“I’ve added a story line about a guy in his late 30s who is packing up his childhood bedroom after the death of his mother,” Stieber said. “His young son is with him, and they keep coming across things like Battleship and Stretch Armstrong, and the kid finds the book. The story starts coming alive when the son starts reading it to his dad. And the dad is remembering it as he would have seen it in the mid 1980s. So the thing has a whole mid 80s feel to it.”
That 80s feel comes to life through the creatures James finds inside the peach, whom Stieber modeled after that decade’s pop stars. There’s The Centipede (Nikki Sixx), The Ladybug (Cyndi Lauper), The Old Green Grasshopper (Dexys Midnight Runners), Miss Spider (Martha Davis), The Silkworm (Morris Day) and The Glowworm (Belinda Carlisle).
Despite the heavy music references, the production is not a musical. But there will be lots of sound cues, Stieber said.
Because the running time of the play is only about an hour-and-a-half, Stieber had to make changes to the storyline. Stieber also had to amend his original script to accommodate more actors.
“The script originally called for 30, but we had over 100 audition, so I cast as many as I could possibly get away with,” he said. “All of them are being trained right now with a British accent.”
Most of the 40-member cast are familiar with the book and often challenged Stieber about things he cut.
“Some of the kids were going, ‘Well, why did you leave this part out?'” he said. “They also serve as my editors and critics as well which is really, really great. Since we’re doing this for kids, what better feedback to get than from your child cast? We’re creating this together. They’re coming up with ideas.”
The bulk of the story takes place during the trans-Atlantic crossing James and his peach-mates embark on. A flock of seagulls carries the peach on silk from Miss Spider and The Silkworm. Stieber based the seagulls on the group A Flock of Seagulls. During the flight, they encounter the stormy Cloud-Men, who Stieber turns into members of the Stomp! percussion collective. And for the rainbow James and the peach crash into, Stieber turned to the United Colors of Benetton.
“We call it the Unity of Colors of Benefactor,” he said.
Fairy tales have happy endings, even if the journey entails some scary moments. The same is true of James and the Giant Peach. At one point in Stieber’s adaptation, the young boy reading it to his father stops and asks, “Did grandma really used to read this to you?”