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Jan 29, 2016

‘Matilda’ leaps into the Peace Center

Greenville News

Paul Hyde, [email protected] 10:38 a.m. EST January 28, 2016

The first thing you notice about the kids in the musical “Matilda” is that they act like kids — fearlessly.

They fly on swings and boogie with abandon on school desks.

Choreographer Peter Darling decided early on that his dances for the show would bristle with youthful daring and gumption.

“I think children by their nature are not as fearful as adults,” Darling said. “What they’re doing in the musical is what you’d see on any primary school playground.”

The first national tour of the Broadway blockbuster “Matilda” opens Tuesday at the Peace Center for eight performances through Feb. 7.

The musical, based on the classic story by Roald Dahl, centers on a book-loving English girl who dreams of a better life away from her neglectful parents and the cruel headmistress at her school, Crunchem Hall.

Armed with a vivid imagination and a sharp mind, Matilda dares to take a stand against the bullies and the boors. She’s aided by her school companions and befriended by Miss Honey, her teacher who is as sweet-hearted as her name implies but consumed by self-doubt.

Matilda herself is a pint-sized heroine — at 4-foot-5-inches, she’s Broadway’s smallest leading lady — and as cute and plucky as Annie but with indomitable courage and a fierce sense of justice.

“The show is really magical,” said Cassie Silva, who plays Matilda’s self-center mother, Mrs. Wormwood. “I know that sounds like a cliche but I really was affected by it the first time I saw it, before I had even auditioned for it. It was captivating. It made me think, it made me laugh, it made me cry and inspired me. I actually believe in this story about changing your destiny and I believe in the power of children.”

The 14 young people occupy a prominent place in this Royal Shakespeare Company production. They range in age from 9 to 13, with Matilda being among the youngest. In the national tour, three actresses, all age 9, alternate in the demanding title role.

Darling, the choreographer who garnered a Tony nomination and won the Olivier (the British version of the Tony) for his work on “Matilda,” designed the children’s hyper-kinetic dances by spending a week at an English primary school.

“I sat in the lessons and on the playground just to get an idea of what the defining characteristic might be for the movements,” Darling said, speaking by phone from London.

“One thing I noticed is that kids never really stop moving,” he said. “They’re constantly fidgeting, jerking and moving.”

Safety is a priority for the children, of course, and the young cast spends an hour before each performance going through the moves on stage, Silva said.

“They want to play on stage, see what’s possible and make bold choices,” Silva said, speaking from Nashville on a tour stop. “But they’re really well-bonded and work as a team, making sure each other is safe.”

“Matilda” won a record-breaking seven Olivier Awards including Best Musical in 2012, and followed up that success with four 2013 Tony Awards.

The show continues to run in London and on Broadway, having earned universal critical acclaim for Dennis Kelly’s dramatic book and Tim Minchin’s appealing mix of rousing showstoppers and poignant ballads.

Tale of empowerment

Many critics drew attention to its theme of empowerment through reading and imagination. ‘“Matilda’ is about words and language, books and stories, and their incalculable worth as weapons of defense, attack and survival,” wrote critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times. “It’s about turning the alphabet into magic, and using it to rule the world.”

The first national tour, supervised by Darling and the show’s other creators, launched this past June, so Greenville is seeing the show relatively early in its lifespan.

Though the musical is suitable for most children, Dahl’s stories are famous for their darkly comic content and heartless villains, both of which are faithfully reflected in Kelly’s Tony Award-winning book of the show.

“Dennis Kelly’s book is so smart,” Darling said. “It manages to be entertaining but also explore serious themes. That’s my favorite form of theater — when you laugh really hard but also you’re also thinking at the same time.”

The music and lyrics, by Australian comedian and composer Tim Minchin, “are extraordinary,” Darling said. “They capture the spirit of Roald Dahl. When I first heard the music, I was incredibly glad to be a part of this show.”

Darling came to “Matilda” after a string of successes, including Tony and Olivier awards for his dynamic choreography in another musical that spotlights young people, “Billy Elliot.”

“I guess I’ve become the go-to children’s choreographer,” Darling said with a laugh.

With a cast and crew of more than 100, the “Matilda” touring company is one of the largest traveling Broadway troupes. The show requires a large technical crew and, uniquely, three tutors for the children, who aren’t exempt from school just because they’re on the road.

“We love the children,” Silva said. “Most of the time I want to play with them but they’re being very professional.”

Silva’s Mrs. Wormwood, who’s obsessed with ballroom dancing and whose motto is “looks, not books,” believes that what’s important in today’s world is volume rather than intelligence — and she expresses that idea obstreperously in the tour de force number “Loud.”

“She just screams for the entire show,” Silva said, with a laugh. “I feel lucky. We have an amazing team that works with us not only on accents but breath and vocal support. Early on, I had to prove to myself that I could do the role, but I’ve been doing it for a while now.”

Silva joined the company at the beginning of the tour in June after performing in the Broadway show for eight months.

“Matilda” continues to gain new audiences. A production of the show just opened in Australia and plans are in the works for stagings of the musical in Europe, Asia and a touring version in the U.K.

Meanwhile, Darling and the rest of the “Matilda” creative team are currently working on a musical version of the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” with plans to open in Britain’s Old Vic in August and transfer to Broadway in 2017.

At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the Peace Center will present a pre-show talk about “Matilda.” Admission is free, though reservations are requested at www.peacecenter.org.

For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

YOU CAN GO

What: “Matilda the Musical”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Peace Center Concert Hall

Tickets: $25 to $85

Information: 864-467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org