‘Matilda’ and the challenges of child stage actors

matildaIt was fun to see the Broadway musical “Matilda” Christmas night thanks to my theater-loving brother.

The show appeared on many end-of-the-year 10 best lists and it’s easy to see why — it’s a dark and offbeat musical adapted from a story by the dark and offbeat Roald Dahl, who gave us “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and several other creepy kiddie classics.

Generally, I’m turned off by plays centered on children because of the artificiality of child stage actors. Movie history is filled with memorable performances by kids under the age of 12 but that is almost always the result of a natural talent (and ease in front of a camera) being skillfully manipulated by a sensitive director.

Getting a kid to deliver a performance on stage in front of an audience is a whole different ball of wax that seems more about mechanical training than the presentation of believable emotions and behavior. The projection and the larger than life stage presence that is so impressive in an adult performer can look like a series of drills when a child takes the stage.

matilda2We are also more aware in the theater that a child actor is working hard to entertain us and has no doubt spent months (years?) of being schooled in order to be serving a function that our culture outlawed a century ago — child labor.

Asking a little girl to do eight shows a week in the title role of “Matilda” might provoke outrage in the audience, so six very young actresses are sharing the part at the moment. This fact makes the achievement of a coherent performance night after night even more impressive — the little stars never get into the performance rhythm of their adult counterparts and the older actors face the challenge of constantly adjusting their performances to a half dozen, interchangeable leading ladies.

The miracle of “Matilda” is that the show is so entertaining despite the fact that the child in the lead appears to have been as ruthlessly schooled and regimented as the kid characters in the Dahl story are by the horrendous (but very funny) headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

The black comedy tone of “Matilda” is quite unusual for a Broadway musical — especially one that is being sold as a “family” show. Matilda is actively disliked by her ignorant parents and indifferent brother and she is mocked for loving books and reading in favor of sitting of front of the family television.

Gabriella Pizzolo was Matilda on Christmas night, and other than her problematic diction, she went through the motions like a mini-trouper. The real heavy lifting in the show, however, was done by the inspired adult comic actors around her — Ben Thompson as Trunchbull (the role is always played by a man in drag), and Lesli Margherita and Gabriel Ebert as the hilariously appalling parents.

The show deserves its success, but it will be a challenge to maintain as a long-running hit because those little girls will all have to be replaced at regular intervals.