Theater

Four girls look forward to playing Broadway’s ‘Matilda’

 

AP Drama Writer

Watch out, Broadway: The four little girls picked to play the telekinetic heroine Matilda in New York have been revealed— and they’re already pretty magical.

Nine-year-old Sophia Gennusa and 10-year-olds Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro will rotate playing the precocious lead when Matilda the Musical makes its New York debut next year.

The four – one from New York City, two from the surrounding region and one from Pennsylvania – had never met before they auditioned for the part. All will be making their Broadway debuts, but they don’t lack confidence.

“I never thought this would happen when I was this age. I thought I’d be 16 before I did something like this,” says Milly, who has appeared in Anything Goes in Tampa.

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 book about a girl who unleashes her magical powers on nasty parents and an evil headmistress, the show begins previews March 4 and opens on April 11 at the Shubert Theatre.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical debuted in late 2010 at the company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon in England and then transferred to London’s West End in 2011, where it is still playing. None of the American girls, who will each star in the role twice a week, have seen the work in London, but they have checked out clips on YouTube.

Each girl remembers attending her first big musical as a turning point in their theatrical direction. For Bailey, it was Wonderland, which fueled a love of performing that led to playing Cindy-Lou Who last year in the national tour of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical.

For Sophia, it was The Little Mermaid on Broadway. “I knew then that was what I wanted to do,” she said. “This is a big opportunity and I just took it when it came.”

When her mom told her around Halloween that she got the part of Matilda, she held her breath. “I said, ‘Excuse me.’ I went into my room, locked the door and started screaming and running around in circles.”

Oona’s first Broadway show was The Addams Family and that’s where she set her sights. “I don’t know if this sounds bad, but I kind of knew it would happen,” she said.

Milly saw Cats on tour at age 3 and was transfixed. “I literally couldn’t stop staring at it. My mom said I was just fascinated. It was all I could really think about.”

The Shapiro family will actually be enjoying two big theatrical accomplishments. Milly’s sister, Abigail, landed the role of Cindy-Lou Who in the Grinch musical at Madison Square Garden this holiday season. So who gets bragging rights at their home now? “My sister does not brag and I don’t either,” Milly said.

Matilda is written by the playwright Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by the Australian comedian and composer Tim Minchin. The director is Tony Award-winner Matthew Warchus.

The musical combines childlike exuberance with Dahl’s characteristic touch of the macabre. There is parental neglect, child cruelty and even a monstrous teacher swinging girls by their pigtails,

The new actresses playing Matilda said they were drawn to the musical’s message of independence, its humor and imagination, and the complexity of the part, which requires some cartwheels in addition to a good pair of pipes.

“I think it’s a story about really being yourself,” said Sophia, who has appeared in The Nutcracker and played Puck in a children’s version of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The four American girls have big shoes to fill when rehearsals begin in January. All four Matildas in London were jointly declared best actress at the most recent Olivier Awards, the most prestigious honor in British theater.

The new cast is ready, though. “I think it’s exciting and sad at the same time,” said Sophia, who anticipates missing her friends. “You’re not going to do other stuff that you want to do. You’re going to be busy.”

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