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Child’s play: ‘Matilda’ choreographer master of working with kids

The kids fly high in the national touring production of "Matilda The Musical" (Photo: Brian Tietz)

The list of Broadway musicals that make formidable demands on child performers is a long one. Just consider some of the most familiar of the shows: “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music” “Oliver,” “Gypsy,” “Peter Pan,” “Annie,” “Les Miserables,” “The Lion King,” “The Secret Garden,” “Fun Home,” “Billy Elliot.”

Among the latest additions to this list is “Matilda The Musical,” which was devised by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, had its London debut in 2011, opened on Broadway two years later, and will now arrive at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre in its first national touring company production for a three-week run beginning March 22. The show has roles for 11 grade-school kids (plus swings), with three young actresses alternating in the demanding title role.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s novel of the same name — with an adaptation by Dennis Kelly, a score by Tim Minchin, and direction by Matthew Warchus — “Matilda” spins around a precocious five-year-old girl in a small English village who has the gift of telekinesis, loves reading, is often ill-treated by her father, ignored by her mother and turns to mischievous pranks as a form of retaliation.

Her great intelligence is recognized by her kindergarten teacher, Jennifer Honey. But Honey’s efforts to have the school’s tyrannical headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull, move Matilda into a more advanced class, or to bring the fact of her unique intelligence to the attentions of the girl’s parents, initially goes nowhere.

Three young actresses – Savannah Grace Elmer (from left), Sarah McKinley Austin, and Lily Brooks O’Briant – will alternate in the title role of “Matilda The Musical” at the Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Brian Tietz)
Three young actresses – Savannah Grace Elmer (from left), Sarah McKinley Austin, and Lily Brooks O’Briant – will alternate in the title role of “Matilda The Musical” at the Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Brian Tietz)

‘MATILDA THE MUSICAL’

When: March 22 – April 10

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $30 – $113

Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Though never a particular career goal for Peter Darling — who received the Tony Award for best choreographer for his work on “Billy Elliot,” and a subsequent Tony nomination for “Matilda” — he has proved himself a master of wrangling child performers. Showcasing them in often bravura but wonderfully natural ways, he has found ways to capture their comical attempts in a ballet class (as in “Billy Elliot”), or set them swinging above the stage (in “Matilda”).

“Early on in our discussions about ‘Matilda’ there was a serious debate about whether the roles of the kids should be played by children or adults,” Darling said. “I saw why they conceivably could be played by adults — because Dahl’s children are often like grotesque grownups — but I was adamant that they be played by children.”

Once that decision was made, Darling turned to Dahl’s book and its distinctive illustrations by Quentin Blake.

“They were the key to the overall physicality in the show,” said the choreographer. “You can almost hear Blake’s pen scratching the paper, and showing the kids those pictures was where I started.”

“Most of the kids we cast — and they range in age from about eight to 13 — have worked professionally before, and have been to dance classes,” said Darling, who began his own career working as an actor in physical theater. “But what I look for at auditions is a child who can connect the thought to the movement, who understands the intention behind it. I never ask the kids to improvise. I just have them learn the material, tell them what the idea behind it is, and see if they can act it. They need to be able to enter into the imaginary world of the story and move at the same time.”

“As with adult actors, you play to their strengths. And children are like sponges — able to absorb material [though not create it] faster than adults. And they have a natural speed. The lyrical stuff is harder, especially for the boys, because they don’t really master balance — like walking on a narrow bench or a beam — before the age of nine. Their motor skills are less advanced than those of girls, although by about age 12 they catch up.”

One crucial bit of research Darling did for “Matilda” was to spend a week at a primary school in Wales where he observed the kids in the classroom and the playground.

“I chose a country school rather than an urban one where the kids tend to be more sophisticated,” he said. “And I realized that they never really sit still. There is a lot of fidgeting at that age.”

Rehearsals for the child performers begin three or four weeks before the adults come into the picture “because the kids need time,” Darling noted. “Stages are big industrial places and they must know exactly what they are doing in order to be safe.”

When it came to choreographing for the adults in “Matilda,” Darling said: “I wanted a bold outline, because Dahl’s characters are all about being on the front foot in terms of what they stand for. They are writ larger than life.”

As for who gets to play Matilda on opening night, Darling said it is determined by picking a name out of a hat.

A scene from “Matilda The Musical,” in its first national touring production at the Oriental Theatre. Photo: Brian Tietz)
A scene from “Matilda The Musical,” in its first national touring production at the Oriental Theatre. Photo: Brian Tietz)