Monday, November 17, 2014

Special Rehearsal Pulls Out All the Stops

By Vivian Auslander

Our James team with composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
At the beginning of James and the Giant Peach—BACT’s ebullient holiday musical—the mysterious narrator, Ladahlord, invites the audience to “Come with me to see something strange unfold. Hear the weirdest tale that was ever told.”

I got a peek into how our BACT artists were creating this tale at a rehearsal where the cast had the rare chance to work with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Tony Award-nominated songwriters who wrote the music for the show. That’s like having a young Rodgers and Hammerstein walk in the door to give a master class!

Based on the story by Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach recounts how James, who is orphaned when his parents are eaten by an angry rhino, escapes from his mean aunts with a bevy of charming if wacky insects inside an enormous, enchanted peach.
The cast had met three times to prepare a few of the songs from the show before Benj and Justin flew in from New York. Everyone was nervous but very eager to hear the composers’ thoughts.

When I arrived at the studio, Benj and Justin were watching the antics of Michelle Navarrete and Caroline Schneider, who play Spiker and Sponge, James’s awful (but funny) aunts. Justin moved to the keyboard to accompany the song the aunts sing when they discover that James is about to become their “property.”  As his fingers flew and his foot pounded out the beat, the air began to pulse with a passionate energy that became the hallmark of the evening.

For each song the cast had prepared, Benj and Justin explained what ideas and emotions they wanted to convey with the music and the lyrics, and then focused in like laser beams as the actors sang.

“Use a hushed intensity,” Justin suggested to Sean Fenton, as Sean tackled Lahdahlord’s opening song.

For Derek Collard, who plays Green Grasshopper, Justin jumped up to demonstrate how to use the rhythms of the tune, “Floating Along,” to give his friends courage as the Giant Peach takes them out to sea.

Introducing the tender melody the insects sing to comfort James, Justin asked Betsy Picart (Ladybug) and Derek to treat the song as a quiet conversation. To help everyone understand the poignancy of having such a conversation with a little boy, Director Nina Meehan stood up, put her arm around 7-year-old Grady Walsh, and led him to the center of the floor, where they sat down together.  We all held our breath as Betsy and Derek sang to Grady.  (Grady’s mom is Dialect Coach Heather Robison.)
Benj Pasek (far left) and Justin Paul (far right) observe as Nina Meehan and 7-year-old Grady enjoy the song of Ladybug (Picart) and Grasshopper (Collard).

At the break, I asked Michelle how it felt to be working directly with the show’s creators. “It’s an amazing experience,” she said. “I feel so lucky. You can develop the layers in your character so much more with this coaching.”
Music Director Kevin Roland added, “Their music is phenomenal.  It pays homage to the great musical theatre teams that have come before them, yet it blends styles and rhythms—everything from Caribbean to American standards--in a way that is fresh and unique. Their versatility tells the story brilliantly and keeps you interested throughout the show.”

For three hours, the cast sent harmonies soaring, while Benj and Justin pulled out all the stops, pouring their hearts into helping BACT prepare their show. Then, suddenly, the musical fireworks were over. It was time for hugs all around, and good-byes.
Nina ushered the songwriters off to catch their flights home, then turned to the cast members, beaming.  “You rocked it!” she shouted.  “Those two guys brought such a level of energy to this room! Justin was stomping the floor so hard I was sure there’d be a hole!  Now what we have to do is trust their words, trust their rhythms, and bring that energy to the show!”

And, when you see the show, I think you’ll agree that they have!

Vivian Auslander is a BACT Board Member.

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