In the 35 years since it was published, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical has been performed on Broadway and made into at least two feature movies. Each production relied on children to fill many roles.
In a few days, on Friday, Jan. 20, Northwestern University’s Dolphin Show, America’s largest student-produced musical, now in its 80th year, is set to take up the musical. NU’s undergraduates are scheduled to sing, dance and act their way through the production. Can these young adults play children? Would this production of Matilda appeal to adults, in particular those without children to accompany them?
A conversation with the director, Lucy Harrington, the community producer, Rachel Schmaier, and the titular lead, Morgan Barber, who plays Matilda, answered those questions; in brief, yes and yes.
Matilda’s themes are universal and the cast is more than up to the task of playing every part, according to Harrington, a senior.
“It’s really a story about people trying to find their place, who have experienced neglect from people who are supposed to love them. How do we deal with that, when the people who are supposed to love us don’t and the world tells us that they should?,” she said.
Matilda is super-smart and has an incredible imagination, one of her superpowers, but she is unloved by her parents. (Her other superpower is telekinesis.) Harrington continued, “Matilda uses her imagination as a means for survival in a world that just neglects her. The story is about how she searches for a place and community and somebody who understands her and somebody who makes her feel loved and not so alone.”
Barber is a sophomore and excited to have been chosen to play Matilda. She spends a good deal of time on stage in a lyra, an aerial hoop suspended above the stage. Barber says she is not intimidated having to sing and perform at such a height.
There are other circus elements Harrington added to the show, having sought guidance and assistance from Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, director of The Actors Gymnasium’s Professional Circus Training Program and a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Department of Theatre. Hernandez-DiStasi served as a circus choreography consultant on Matilda and provided guidance and advice to Dani Goldberg, the show’s circus choreographer.
The circus elements are a storytelling tool for the actors, said Harrington.
Schmaier, a senior, is one of three producers. She manages and oversees teams of students responsible for events, accessibility and community development. In an email, Schmaier said this year she “focused on expanding The Dolphin Show’s education efforts internally and externally, including opportunities for the team to interact with Dolphin alumni in pre-professional workshops focused on arts management and administration.”
Schmaier also focused on creating opportunities to educate children about the show. The Sunday, Jan. 22 matinee includes special programming for children before and after the performance. After the show there will be an opportunity for children to meet and greet members of the cast in the lobby.
Schmaier’s accessibility team also developed resources for theatergoers including a quiet room, sensory packs (fidget toys, noise canceling headphones) and an access guide that includes a social story that identifies the high-sensory moments throughout the musical.
Harrington clarified that the problematic elements, such as sexism and body shaming, from Dahl’s original story are not portrayed in this production. “This is our version of Matilda,” said Harrington.
And as for college students playing children, Harrington said, “I tell the actors we’re playing the most earnest parts of ourselves as kids. We’re not playing as if we are five years old. We’re just playing the most imaginative, playful human beings we can be.”
Matilda opens Friday, Jan. 20 and closes on Saturday, Jan. 28. Performances will take place in Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St. All performances have accessible seating and there is an elevator. To purchase tickets, click this link.