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Arts & Leisure: Magic and mayhem featuring local actors at PGT

Matilda hug

Whether we found it in the pages of Roald Dahl's classic children's book, on screen or on stage, many of us know the story. Matilda is a young bookworm, fiercely brilliant and neglected by her peabrain parents. She returns their apathy with a series of pranks, but soon meets a greater adversary in Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the terrifying headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary School. Miss Trunchbull tortures the children for sport, enforcing rather unorthodox punishments, such as forcing a boy to guzzle cake until he nearly bursts and hurling a girl around by her pigtails.

Over her journey, Matilda discovers she has telekinesis, and proposes to use her power to fight back in the name of all mistreated children.

Dahl's novel, "Matilda" was published in 1988 with illustrations by Quentin Blake. Kate Winslet later adapted the story into an audio reading, and in 1996, it was adapted again for film. Reframed in the U.S., the childhood blockbuster was directed by Danny DeVito, who narrated the story and played Matilda’s father, Mr. Wormwood. "Matilda" was also made into a two-part BBC Radio program, and in 2010, Royal Shakespeare Co. mounted a staged musical version, with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. The show’s Tony-winning Broadway run ended in January 2017.

The Play Group Theatre, 1 North Broadway, White Plains, will stage its own production of the beloved children's tale, with a total of four performances between May 5 and May 12. Musical direction is by Zack Autieri, with set design by Steven Abusch and costume design by Jill Abusch.

The show features 44 actors (ages 7 to 17), PGT's largest cast since its first production in 1995. Several cast and crew members are students in the Scarsdale schools, and the show's director, Anna Llewellyn, is a Scarsdale High School alumna, class of 2013.

Matilda directionLlewellyn, 23, started acting at PGT as a sophomore in high school, painfully shy and eager to push her boundaries. "I need to learn how to speak in public and be a human being and not be afraid to raise my hand in class," she said of her thought process. From her first show, "Bat Boy: The Musical," in which she was charged with getting the fake blood on stage, Llewellyn was hooked. She continued working at PGT over summers in college, and came on board full time after she graduated in 2017. "Never leaving," she said. "Can't get rid of me."

Llewellyn, who was raised in Guildford, England, has been particularly effective helping the actors hone their British accents. "I know when it's good or not," she said, "and they're so good."

Jack Finegold, who plays Eric, one of Matilda's classmates, relied on his speech training from PGT productions of "James and the Giant Peach" and "The Wind in the Willows." He also studied a "cheat sheet," which offers tricks and tips to achieve spot-on British phonetics.

Jack, a seventh-grader at Scarsdale Middle School, is 12 years old and has been with PGT in Little Theatre and main stage productions for the last four years. A born performer, "I was too hectic at home," Jack said, "so my mom was like, 'I’m getting you out of here.'"

Eleven-year-old Martha Jones, a fifth-grader at Greenacres Elementary School, has been active at PGT since her family moved from Kentucky three years ago. She was always drawn to performing, she said, acting in plays at her sister’s school and participating in church talent shows. This season, she will star in "Matilda" as the plucky heroine, a character Martha finds relatable despite their starkly different upbringings. While Martha doesn’t have terrible parents and can’t move a cup with her mind, the young thespian said she understands Matilda's perspective and works from there.

Jack's strategy is creating an extensive backstory for his character beyond what's written in the script. Eric has two best friends; he loves vanilla cake and hates cats.

"I get to fill in the blanks and create [his character,]" Jack said. "It's fun to do that."

Rachel Meiselman — who plays Miss Jennifer Honey, Matilda's kindergarten teacher — is one of a few PGT veterans in the cast. Rachel, 16, currently a junior at SHS, joined the troupe six years ago. Since then, she's participated in many main stage productions and the Community Cabaret program, a traveling troupe that performs in local hospitals, shelters and nursing homes.

While younger students benefit from the older kids' experience, Rachel said the learning works both ways. "They're so creative," she said. "They can think of a million different ways to do something."

Matilda magic mayhem"[The younger kids] have such bravery," Llewellyn added. "They go for it and take risks."

The cast agreed staging this show has been challenging in all the best ways — with high-difficulty choreography by Sara Coombs (more so than some of the high school productions, Llewellyn said) and a high-stakes order for the tech department, which must bring Matilda's magical telekinesis to life.

"It [always] looks like it could be a regional production," Rachel said of the tech department. "They always amaze me."

Beneath the elaborate musical numbers and funky stage tricks, the team said the greatest takeaways are about finding big strength in small packages and standing up for oneself.

"Middle school is really socially hard for everyone," Jack said. "So being in a show where the kids take a stand really helps me build my confidence to do the right thing."

"Matilda" runs at PGT May 5 and May 12. Tickets are $18, and $15 for seniors and children under 12; available at playgroup.org or at the box office.

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