It’s amazing! An army of kids, ages 10 to 17, overwhelm the rehearsal studio of Vermont’s largest professional theater. Some are rehearsing with adults, some are rapidly changing sets, some are busily taking notes, while the remainder quietly work on their iPads. These unusually disciplined young folks are preparing for their debut in “Matilda the Musical.”
“We’ve had a lot of discussion about what it means to be professionals, and how rehearsal etiquette means being quiet and focused, and writing things down, and being consistent,” explains Eric Love, Northern Stage’s director of education.
“It doesn’t come naturally, but they have really been able to step up their game with this show. Watching them play big roles alongside professionals is always intriguing.”
For its annual holiday show, Northern Stage is presenting the Tony Award-winning musical based on the 1988 children’s novel by Roald Dahl, adapted by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.
Matilda is an avid reader and brilliant young girl who dreams of a better life and a happy home. With the help of her kind teacher Miss Honey, the other students in her class — and a touch of magic — Matilda takes a stand against her self-centered parents and the despicable Miss Trunchbull in this initially exciting and finally heartwarming story of empowerment.
“It’s perfect because it’s all about the power of a young mind and the ability to use education to rebel against problems made by the world,” Love, who is directing, said between rehearsals.
“It centers on Matilda, it’s told from her perspective. You’re rooting for the children in the show — and they get to fight against the forces of adulthood,” Love said. “There are some darker scenes in this; it’s a scary show at moments of abuse. Sometimes, you think this is awful, but it works so well as entertainment because it’s so stylized into the hilarious — to see Miss Trunchbull played by a man yelling at the students is absolutely hysterical.
“It’s also wonderful entertainment because it’s a journey of Matilda discovering her powers. And there are just a lot of quirky colorful players running through the show.”
Each year, more than 4,000 students of all ages explore the world of theater in Northern Stage’s year-round education programs.
“The education department is about bringing the professionalism of our main stage to young actors,” Love, now in his fourth season at Northern Stage, said. “We’ve done that by bringing professional directors to work with them, or putting them on our main stage in some productions, but this is a main-stage professional production about children.”
Joining the adult actors in the cast are two groups of young thespians. One is Matilda’s classroom peers, ages 10 to 12.
“So, they really are young actors,” Love said. “A lot of them we met in the Shakespeare in the Schools program, some did our Youth Ensemble Junior programs, and some of them heard about the auditions. They have the big bulk of our show.”
Teens, ages 16 and 17, older education students, play the big kids.
“On Broadway, they didn’t have teens,” Love said. “They had the big kids played by adult professional actors. Why should we do that if we have this wealth of young talent here? That has allowed the ensemble to be bigger than the Broadway ensemble.”
The 30 kids are split into alternating casts of 15. One Matilda, Kylie Benoit, is 11 years old, and the other, Bebhinn Knudsen, is 13.
“It is making the rehearsal process a lively one — and a challenging one,” Love said. “Because you get really good with one cast and then you switch, and you start building it up again. Their personalities and their skill sets are completely different.”
But they all have one thing in common: They are passionate about theater.
“They learn from each other,” Love said. “They see something cool that the other person does and they try it out, and make it their own. They build off each other.”
A complimentary post-show reception with the cast follows the Nov. 17 opening night performance. Optional post-show conversations with the company follow the Nov. 24 evening performance and the 2 p.m. Dec. 2 and 9 shows.