At Wheelock, a fruitful connection to ‘James and the Giant Peach’
Rehearsal has barely begun on this recent evening for “James and the Giant Peach,’’ the large cast having just barreled through a boisterous number titled “Right Before Your Eyes,’’ but already director Emily Ranii sees something she wants to alter.
Rushing from the rear of the 625-seat theater down to the stage of Wheelock Family Theatre at Boston University, Ranii calls for the attention of the assembled youngsters: “Youth ensemble! This is a change. We’re going to cut the cartwheels.’’ She runs across the stage to illustrate the new moves she wants to substitute, then trots in place to further underscore the change.
A short while later, Ranii bounds back onto the stage again to demonstrate the position she wants a young member of the ensemble to adopt. Leaning to the right with her left hand on her hip and her right hand on her right knee, she says: “So, Lev, you’re doing this, right?’’ The boy follows suit. “Great! Genius!’’ the director exclaims, employing her oft-used expression of approval.
Her energy level is high and her movements are quick. But then, the 33-year-old Ranii needs to move fast, given how many hats she’s wearing these days.
Last June, as BU consolidated its control over Wheelock College, Ranii was appointed artistic director at the 38-year-old family theater. She replaced Linda Chin, the former producing artistic director, who was laid off by BU after being told her position was being eliminated.
In addition to serving as the new artistic director, Ranii is the academic program head of BU’s Summer Theatre Institute and teaches acting at BU’s School of Music Opera Institute. By assuming directorial duties for “James and the Giant Peach,’’ she has taken charge of a sprawling production that combines more than a dozen child actors with veteran adult performers like Aimee Doherty, Jared Troilo, Cheryl D. Singleton, Russell Garrett, and David Jiles Jr.
Slated to run through May 12 and featuring a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen,’’ “La La Land’’) with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, “James and the Giant Peach’’ is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s tale about an orphaned British boy, mistreated by a pair of cruel aunts, who takes an adventurous voyage inside an enormous peach in the company of the human-sized insects who befriend him.
“It’s really a parable for celebrating difference and finding your place in the world,’’ says Ranii. As a child, she says, she loved the book’s “whimsy and surprise and wonder,’’ and today she ranks it with such Dahl classics as “Matilda’’ and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’’ Looking out at her young cast from a seat in the theater, Ranii remarks: “They know the story. Sometimes they tell me the story.’’
Indeed, the two young actors who will alternate in the role of James — Brendan O’Brien, 11, of South Boston, and Cameron Levesque, 12, of Sudbury — seem to possess an in-depth understanding of the musical. “The show is very much about family, and finding family,’’ says Levesque, adding that James “has a lot of courage, and when his imagination kind of helps him get out of the wretched life he’s in, he’s able to be happy.’’ To O’Brien, the musical underscores the fact that “you get to find a home, whoever you are.’’
The costars are friends, having shared the role of Frank Jr. in the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2017 production of “Merrily We Roll Along,’’ and they frequently confer on how the role of James should be interpreted. They say that Ranii guides them on when to project more in a scene and when to dial it back, but also encourages their input. “She as a director is so much fun to work with, because she will often say, after a scene, ‘Yes, and,’’’ says O’Brien. “And then she’ll be like: ‘What is James feeling? What is the background behind this?’” Adds Levesque: “She pulled things out of the script that I never would have thought of. She’s amazing at being able to look at the big picture.’’
To Ranii, the big picture of “James and the Giant Peach’’ is bursting with a still-relevant, even urgent, message. “It’s a story that desperately needs to be told, time and again: There are worlds out there that are different from ours,’’ she says. “We’ve got to be able to see each other for our hearts.’’
James and the Giant Peach
At Wheelock Family Theatre at Boston University, 200 The Riverway, through May 12. Tickets: $20-$40, 617-353-3001, web.ovationtix.com/trs/dept/1292