—Originally published February 23, 2015—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw “James and the Giant Peach,” a musical by Pasek and Paul, presented by Northwestern’s Imagine U’s theatre program for young audiences. Let’s hear what they had to say…
“I liked it,” said Eleanor.
“So did I…” said Gwen, with a hint of hesitation in her voice.
“Yeah.” Dania added.
The three girls walked quietly out of the theatre amid the chorus of small children that ran around them, dragging their parents out of the talkback that had followed the performance. In their turn, they spun through the revolving door out of the Torso Lobby of the Wirtz Center and into the biting February wind. Dania tightened her scarf.
“I definitely liked the two aunts the best,” Dania finally said, after a moment or so of quiet traveling.
“Yeah, they were really fantastic! Spiker and Sponge…right?”
“Yeah, Spiker and Sponge,” Gwen responded, flipping her program open. “Meghan McCandless and Hannah Shealy.”
“They were great. Fantastic pair of actresses. They played off each other really well.”
“I thought so,” added Gwen. “I mean, they’re given way more to do in this version, versus the book where they’re dead in the third chapter or whatever.”
“And I like that,” Eleanor said. “Because it’s shorter, and there’s less of the stuff that happens on the peach itself, it’s helpful to have two antagonists throughout…”
“…But that’s the thing: why’d they cut everything on the peach?” Dania said, re-entering the conversation.
“I was wondering that. It felt a little short,” Gwen added.
“Well, it’s only 75 minutes. It’s for little kids.”
“But still,” said Dania, “the book had, like, the Cloud People, and…I don’t know, other stuff in it that this one left out. Right? They could have put that in.”
“Well, they got all the major points of the book in there. The sharks attacking, catching the seagulls…” Eleanor said.
“I know, I know, but…I don’t know, it just felt short. Did you get that, Gwen?”
“Yeah, something about it felt sparse,” Gwen said. “Like there was more in the story that had to be cut out for some reason.”
“Well,” said Eleanor, “they said there was a longer version in Seattle, right?”
“Right! Right, that’s probably why it feels shorter. Did they cut it down for this version alone?”
“I think so,” said Eleanor.
“Maybe it needs to be longer, then,” said Gwen. During this, Dania tried hard to remember more about the book than just the Cloud People.
“I just feel like there’s something missing,” she said, racking her brain.
“You’re probably thinking about the movie. They added a bunch of stuff to that, like eating the peach and the long underwater scene and…”
“Wait, I thought they had eating the peach in this one!” Eleanor said.
“Well, they have it,” Gwen clarified, “but, you know, in the movie, it’s this big Randy Newman song and everything. It takes a while.”
“So what’s in the book, then?” asked Dania.
“Well, the book can stretch things out because it’s written. With descriptions and anecdotes and everything. Like, the rhino description is a lot longer in the book.”
“Is it?” asked Eleanor. “That might explain why it felt so weirdly fast in this version.”
“Oh, well the rhino has always been super contrived,” Gwen explained. “That’s in the book, too. It just takes longer. They’re at the zoo, a rhino breaks free, James runs, et cetera.”
“Well…but that makes more sense to me!” said Eleanor. “I mean, here, I thought they were just walking down the street when suddenly BAM rhino.”
“Yeah, maybe they should’ve left that in,” said Gwen. “I don’t know, it’s the same story, whatever. It’s basically entertaining, in the way Roald Dahl is entertaining. Did you catch the extremely subtle reference to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?’”
“Yeah, what was that?” asked Dania. “I was watching all the umbrellas on the stage and then it’s like — oh, okay, Oompa-Loompas!”
“It’s when the peach is rolling away,” said Eleanor. “There’s this one-off line about a famous chocolate factory, I feel the joke was supposed to be a lot faster in performance.”
“Probably.” Dania pulled her scarf up and over her nose. “I mean, the narrator girl mentioned it afterwards really quickly, but I missed the buildup.”
“There wasn’t much,” said Gwen. “But I did really like that narrator girl. That was Myrna Conn, right?”
“Yeah. She did a nice job,” said Eleanor.
“Yeah,” said Gwen. “I thought she did a nice job of sort of steering the whole performance. It’s like the Leading Player in ‘Pippin,’ you know? Or the Cat from ‘Seussical,’ where she’s playing all the side characters?”
“Yeah, she was nice. Was she supposed to be that mysterious ‘magic spell’ guy the whole time, or was that just one role?”
“I think it was just one role.”
“Oh. She’s got a great voice.”
“She does. I think that’s why they threw her into all the group numbers on the peach,” said Gwen.
“What do you mean?” asked Dania.
“Did you not notice? Every time there was a group number with all the bugs on the peach, she randomly came in and sung with them.”
“Oh yeah,” said Eleanor.” I noticed that, but I just thought that was her being the narrator.”
“I guess. But it threw me.”
There was a lull in the conversation, and the girls walked on through the solidifying, icy snow.
“They’d probably just sweep that under the umbrella explanation of “show-within-a-show,” said Eleanor, whereupon Dania groaned.
“I was hoping you weren’t going to bring that up,” she said.
“What’s wrong with that?” said Gwen. “I thought that was cool, with all the suitcases and everything…”
“Well, yeah,” said Dania, “but why couldn’t they just do a production of ‘James and the Giant Peach?’ Why does it always have to be a bunch of actors putting on ‘James and the Giant Peach?’”
“I mean,” said Eleanor, trying to keep the peace, “that’s how the show is written. That’s what the opening number is about.”
“But why was it written like that?” said Dania. “I want to see the Spider, the Centipede, the Grasshopper…not a bunch of actors playing the Spider, the Centipede, the Grasshopper…”
“Then you watch the movie,” said Eleanor, “where they can actually animate them. But live theatre is always going to be actors.”
“Well, no, I see where she’s coming from,” said Gwen. “I mean, I loved that it was Troupe of Actors method — that’s what it’s called, Dania…”
“Okay then,” Dania responded.
“…but I agree that it was kind of a weird thing to add to the show. Like, we didn’t learn anything about the actors putting on the show. It sort of felt like a safety net to make up for not having a huge set.”
“Gwen!” Eleanor retorted. “It’s the Struble!”
“No, no, not that it wasn’t impressive to have all the umbrellas and trunks and everything,” Gwen defended. “And they packed it in, it was clean and all. But there wasn’t a reason to have the troupe onstage out of character in the opening number. You could have just used the Narrator Girl, let her be the only one who can step outside the world of the story, and then have the rest just play the actual characters…”
“I mean, they can’t just do the umbrellas and shadow puppets and not explain it…can they?” asked Eleanor.
“They could have,” said Gwen.
“But would it have made sense?”
“I think so. You’d have still got what was going on without the opening number, right, Dania?”
“Well, sure, I would, but there are kids there.”
“Oh yeah,” said Gwen, momentarily derailed.
“Right, it’s for kids,” said Eleanor.
But Gwen was back. “Yeah, but if the actors sell it…if the world of the play is one in which these umbrellas represent a peach, the kids will pick that up. Kids aren’t dumb.”
“But that still works within the world of the Troupe of Actors method,” said Eleanor.
“True, but the other stuff in it…I don’t know, I just don’t think it was totally necessary to add on to the script.” Gwen paused. “If it was a production thing, like if Rives just decided to stage the production like that, that’d be awesome. It’s a script thing, not an Imagine U thing.”
“Right,” Eleanor said.
They walked on.
“I didn’t know Sarah Cartwright could sing like that,” said Gwen.
“Yeah! She was great, as usual. Has she done a musical before?” asked Eleanor.
“I’m not sure.”
“Hm. She should do more of them — in, you know, the quarter she has left.”
“Oh, is she a senior?” asked Dania
“Darn! I hoped she’d be around a little longer. She’s great.”
Their apartment was now in view. Eleanor gripped her program a little tighter.
“I mean, I still liked it overall.”
“Oh, of course,” said Gwen. “It’s a little simplistic, but that’s the style. I think a lot of it is just being a new script. Production-wise, I thought it was really nicely done.”
“Sure,” said Dania. “I thought it was all right. Very theatrical. I wish it was closer to the book.”
“I’m pretty sure they didn’t cut out anything huge,” said Eleanor.
“I don’t know, it just feels like something’s missing!”
“I think you might be talking about it just having a really fast pace for such a short script.”
“I don’t know…”
“Is it the stop-motion puppets?” said Gwen, with a smirk.
“No, it’s not because of the movie!”
They reached the porch of their apartment building.
“Besides,” said Dania. “They still had puppets here, and they looked really cool.”
Photo credit: Justin Barbin Photography