"James and the Giant Peach” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 17. Both performances will take place at Lovejoy Elementary School, 1043 Tremont St., Alton. Tickets are $8, and people of all ages are invited to attend.
ALTON — Entering Lovejoy Elementary School’s gymnasium and seeing 22 middle schoolers in the midst of an exercise with Alton Middle School theater arts director Paul Herbert Pitts certainly is a sight to see.
As the group breaks into song, performing “Plump and Juicy,” one of the bigger group numbers in the musical “James and the Giant Peach,” the stage is filled with smiles and young talent.
The students have been hard at work since July 6, practicing with the Alton Middle School drama workshop under Pitts’ direction, along with the assistant direction and stage management of Cathryn Greenwood.
On day one, the young actors and actresses auditioned and knew their roles by lunchtime. By Tuesday, the cast was performing the entire run-through of the show.
The eight-hour practice days are winding down now. The musical will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 17, at Lovejoy Elementary School. Tickets are $8 and will benefit the drama club.
“The workshop helps with our technique and dancing and singing; it’s also just fun,” said Evangelical School seventh-grader Lorian Warford, who plays Buzz.
“It’s definitely teaching me a lot more difficult choreography than I’m used to,” Our Lady Queen of Peace eighth-grader Mattie Lively added. “With my school being as small as it is, we have a very small drama club. It’s nice that I can come out here and do stuff that I don’t do with my school.”
An actor with more experience on the stage, Alton High School freshman Logan Elliott joined the cast, as well, adding the role of Centipede to his credits including “The Little Mermaid, Jr.,” “Hairspray, Jr.,” “The Lion King” and “Footloose.”
“I’m here because I love theater and this can help me get more used to being on stage and playing my part,” Elliott said.
Some students are learning new skills, and some are gaining more experience in the workshop. Whatever the case, Pitts said starting theater at such a young age can help with communication and ability to reach goals as well as the lesson of life skills.
“In theater, they can bring their own personal experiences, which gives their character an extra touch, but could also help them cope with whatever they’re going through, just by paying attention to the lesson being learned in the story,” he said.
AMS eighth-grader Joseph Whiteside agrees.
“As cheesy as it sounds, you really do learn life lessons through these fictional plays and musicals,” he said. “Theater also has helped me with my communication skills and helped me feel more positive about things and have a good outlook because of Mr. Pitts’ encouragement and positivity.”
The workshop not only teaches life and theater skills, but also introduces lifelong friends. Some students knew each other coming in but didn’t really interact, and some came in only knowing one person.
By the midway point, they were good friends.
“My parents always tell me to hang around the theater kids, because for whatever reason we’re all pretty polite, but also because that’s who I’ll be around for many more years,” AMS seventh-grader Ellie Levi, who has been performing since the age of 5, said.
Pitts has directed and performed in approximately 30 shows throughout his career. Currently, along with directing “James and the Giant Peach: The Musical,” he is playing the role of Seaweed in “Hairspray” for the St. Louis Hawthorne Players. Having a passion for theater as well as the patience and character to bring the arts to students has in turn led many youngsters to the stage, where they fall in love with it as well, he said.
“(I want to thank) the parents and grandparents for helping build and set up the stage, and creating props and costumes for the musical,” he said. “(We were fortunate) the group is able to practice during the summer on a stage with lighting, curtains, etc., thanks to Lovejoy Elementary’s principal, John Ducey.”
The musical will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 17. Both performances will take place at Lovejoy Elementary School, 1043 Tremont St., Alton. Tickets are $8, and people of all ages are invited to attend. For information, contact assistant director Cathryn Greenwood at (618) 920-8501.