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'James and the Giant Peach'

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Justice Crutchfield, left, and Ava Tant, right, rehearse their roles as the Grasshopper and Earthworm in "James and the Giant Peach" at the Whirligig Stage.

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By Kim Grizzard

Friday, July 6, 2018

Jason Coale and Elana Kepner have been working for nearly two years to cultivate a performing arts center in Greenville. Now they are ready for audiences to share the fruits of their labor.

“James and the Giant Peach,” which premiers Wednesday, will be the first youth theater production for Whirligig Stage, the couple’s theater company. It is the second play to be staged at Whirligig’s newly renovated performance space on Pitt Street.

Before spreading its wings with a performance of “The Birds” in June, Whirligig staged its productions in a tent on the lawn.

“As you do when you are building something, we ran into a lot of roadblocks along the way,” Coale, who serves as Whirligig’s executive director, said. “The tent was great to get us going and to get our name out there and to make it clear that we’re bound and determined to do this and make it work and we can do it in a tent.”

The 4,600-square-foot facility includes a black box performance space with seating for about 100, which Kepner hopes to fill for performances of the musical that features a score by the Tony Award-nominated team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

“I fell in love with the music and thought that it would be a really good and very challenging piece to do in this space,” said Kepner, Whirligig’s artistic director and director of “James and the Giant Peach.”

“It’s a really classic story,” she said. “That was another reason we were attracted to it because most kids have read ‘James and the Giant Peach’ at some point in their lives, and a lot of adults now, too.”

Based on a popular 1961 children’s novel by British author Roald Dahl, “James and the Giant Peach” is the adventure of an orphaned boy who discovers a magic potion that produces an enormous peach, along with insects the size of people.

Justice Crutchfield, 17, a rising senior at D.H. Conley High School, portrays Grasshopper, a role he nearly missed. Justice had not heard of Whirligig Stage until his parents, who were having lunch nearby, saw a poster for auditions, which were being held from 1-3.

“I looked at the clock and it was like 2:15,” said Justice, who has been featured in Conley’s “The Addams Family” and Magnolia Arts Center’s “A Christmas Story.”

“I just get in the car and start doing vocal warm ups because I didn’t want to walk in without any vocal preparation,” he said, laughing. “Usually I have a few weeks preparation, but luckily I didn’t have to memorize monologue or anything.”

Hailey Shirtz, 14, who stars as James, also is a student at Conley. The 14-member cast, ranging in age from 7 to 18, also includes students from J.H. Rose, A.G. Cox, Wintergreen and Oakwood, where Kepner works as a theater teacher and musical director.

“We have a couple of folks who’ve never been in a play before, but the talent is pretty phenomenal,” Kepner said.

Several Oakwood graduates are assisting with the production, including Hayley Allen, assistant music director; Jessica Pabst, choreographer; Travis Mewborn, assistant lighting designer; and Tiffany Kessler, production assistant. Rose graduate Sophie Lewis serves as assistant director and stage manager.

“Some students have the opportunity to do plays in their high schools, some even in middle schools, but we don’t have a lot of opportunities to bring together kids from all over,” she said. “I love that experience because I think they get to step out of their comfort zone a little bit more.”

Now that Whirligig is settling into its permanent space, Kepner hopes to do more youth productions.

“There’s not a lot of that here,” she said. “There’s a desire. Some of these kids are already asking when’s the next show and we haven’t even performed this one.

“They’re aware that they’re the first kids to perform in the space and they’re really excited about it,” Kepner said. “They’re our best publicity officers. They make sure everybody comes to see their show.”

“James and the Giant Peach” opens at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Whirligig Stage, 628 S. Pitt St. Additional performances will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday-July 14. There will be a matinee performance at 2 p.m. July 15. Tickets are $12 for students and $16 for adults. Visit whirligigstage.com or call 689-8092.

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