SALT LAKE CITY — Much of the success of Hale Centre Theatre’s upcoming production of “Matilda” rides on the abilities of two pint-sized actresses double-cast in the leading role. Based on Roald Dahl’s classic children's story, the macabre musical comedy centers on Matilda Wormwood — an extraordinary little genius with parents too dim-witted to notice — who leads her classmates in a rebellion against some grown-up bullies.
A barn-burner in London’s West End and Tony winner on Broadway, the regional production features Lucy White and Julia Buckner in the lead role performing alongside dozens of talented children during the seven-week, 65-performance run in HCT's Centre Stage Theatre from April 22-June 15.
“Matilda is so smart. I like how she stands up for herself and sticks up for others,” Lucy, 9, said, referring to the misdeeds heaped upon her character not only by her terror of a headmistress but even her own parents. The grown-ups are no match, however, for Matilda’s inventiveness and supernatural gifts. “She always gets revenge because she knows more than they do, even though she’s small,” she said.
Julia said she’s enjoyed learning the role and singing favorite songs like “Naughty” and “Revolting Children.”
"I’ve always loved singing along with the soundtrack. It’s one of my favorites,” the 10-year-old said. “Then I saw the play when it came on tour and I loved it. I just think Matilda is who every kid wants to be.”
Small resumes, big talent
Over 300 children auditioned for the role of Matilda, and Lucy and Julia were chosen for the starring role not just because of their outstanding talent, HCT vice president and executive producer Sally Dietlein said, but also for their work ethic — both have performed in community theaters and Julia has performed as Little Fan in HCT’s “Christmas Carol” — their ability to take criticism and their willingness to be flexible and instantly rework their character if needed.
“They are young, with obviously small resumes,” Dietlein said. “While having proven themselves during past projects, neither one has had the responsibility of carrying a show.”
Dietlein described a rigorous audition process that included singing, dancing, improvisation and storytelling that helped the company ferret out their unique abilities.
“These girls are really special," she said. "They are tireless and dedicated. They know exactly what they need to do to pull off a brilliant production.”
It seems all the children in “Matilda” are required to have superhero stamina. For the past two months, according to Lucy and Julia, they have spent most of their weekdays going from school to homework to memorizing their lines to nightly rehearsals that run until 10 p.m. — and don’t forget Saturday rehearsals.
“I do it because I love it,” Lucy said. “It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. When I found out I’d gotten (cast as) Matilda, I couldn’t believe it. I was shaking.”
'David vs. Goliath'
Both girls cast as Matilda have made many new friends during rehearsals, but the one they’ve grown closest to is each other, and they plan to remain friends long after the production wraps up. They’ve also enjoyed the mentoring and friendship from the many adults in the production.
“Danny (Inkley), who plays Trunchbull, is so funny,” Lucy said. “He’s always making us laugh and we even made up a nickname for him: Dandelion.”
Lucy and Julia both agree that Miss Trunchbull, the kid-hating headmistress at Matilda’s school, gets the most laughs. In the musical, Dahl’s grotesquely hilarious Queen of Mean is played by male actors — in this case Inkly and Aaron Ford.
“Both Trunchbulls have been on our stage many times,” Dietlein said. “The role requires incredible comedic timing and a sense for the character’s sadistic humor. They have to draw a fine line — intimidating, yes, but in a funny way rather than scary.”
Wearing a bodysuit underneath a military-inspired dress that includes tall knee socks, Miss Trunchbull still has more in common with a linebacker than a headmistress. She cuts an unsightly, hairy-legged figure looming over the children as she paces about angrily, targeting especially Matilda for having the brains that she herself lacks.
The character has become one of the most loved and loathed in musical theater, and, according to director David Tinney, helps underscore the “David vs. Goliath” theme he’s tried to weave throughout the production.
“Our creative team wanted the audience to see everything through the eyes of a child — particularly Matilda’s,” Tinney said. “The sets are oversized and exaggerated, the colors and costumes are either brighter or scarier than reality. The personalities are exaggerated, heightening the family’s dysfunction. This allows the redemption at the end to be even more exquisite.”
'When I grow up'
In Dahl’s story, Matilda’s television-addicted parents are disconnected and distracted and often begrudge their daughter’s disinterest in TV, thinking her a nuisance. With today’s modern array of screen-based distractions, Dietlein said the 1988 story seems especially prolific and poignant two decades later.
“'Matilda' is satire — it has some really important and inspiring messages for kids, yes, but perhaps even more for adults,” she said. “It begs us as adults to ask the question: Are we too distracted and disconnected to help facilitate a child’s unique talents and abilities? Or do we sometimes have an agenda we project on the child that inhibits that uniqueness and sense of self?”
Characters like Matilda’s school teacher, Miss Honey, and Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, serve as warm reminders of how adults can champion and empower a child.
“It’s a beautiful message about our children. I like to think of children as treasure boxes that come to us,” Dietlein said. “Instead of putting our own stuff into them, we’re supposed to open them up and discover what’s inside.”
Dietlein said she knows the entire cast has enjoyed encouraging the two leads on their own journey of self discovery. When a show’s success sits on such slight shoulders, Dietlein said trust becomes critical.
“The cast has become like a family in the ideal sense,” she said. “One of the most beautiful things to watch is the seasoned cast members shepherding and befriending the next generation."
Perhaps it’s also the musical’s empowering message that drives the ambitious young cast members. While they lead a revolution against a tyrannical headmistress, stifled imaginations and slow-witted, disengaged parents, the children belt out: “Even if you're little, you can do a lot.”
If you go …
What: Hale Center Theatre’s “Matilda”
When: April 22-June 15, Monday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday matinees, 12:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Where: Centre Stage Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
How much: $22 for children, $44 for adults, no children under 5