“A little bit naughty”: Matilda rewrites her story in the hit musical opening at the Citadel

John Ullyatt (right) as Miss Trunchbull, Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

We are revolting children/ living in revolting times. We sing revolting songs/ using revolting rhymes.

Kicking, punching, and stomping are de rigueur in the rehearsal rooms of the Citadel these days. “We talk about fighting, not about dancing,” says choreographer Kimberley Rampersad, with a smile.

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“Let’s have less dancing, and more fighting,” she tells the brigade of kids, 10 strong, in the cast of Matilda, the much-awarded 2010 hit musical that opens Thursday at the Citadel, after a run at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. “Too polite!” she sometimes tells them, surely music to the ears of the average kid. “Too lyrical!”

Defiance, after all, is the keynote of the smart and spirited eight-year-old heroine of Matilda, who resists the coercion of her grotesquely dreadful parents, the gorgon headmistress, and anything else that gets in the way of basic fairness in life. And Matilda’s resistance movement against just grinning and bearing whatever injustice comes at you will prove contagious in the 2011 musical based on the deliciously subversive 1988 kids’ novel by Roald Dahl. “By the time we get to the end, we’re using the vocabulary, the motifs, Matilda has taught to all her friends,” says Rampersad. 

Matilda the Musical, Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Vancouver Arts Club Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Rampersad, a rising star in Canadian theatre, made time for coffee in a week when that commodity, time that is, was at a particular premium. The dozen grown-ups in director Daryl Cloran’s cast, including Edmonton’s John Ullyatt as the monstrously terrifying Crunchem Hall School headmistress Miss Trunchbull (her motto: “children are maggots”), had arrived for the second leg of their three-city contract (Matilda opens at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre in May). Except for the alternating Matilda’s, though (Anna Anderson-Epp from Winnipeg,  and Lilla Solymos from Edmonton), the nine other kids in Matilda, five girls and four boys ages eight to 13, are all from Edmonton and all new to a show that’s hugely challenging — in music, in acting, in movement.

“I don’t want to stop them from doing what comes naturally … (but) we’re introducing them to other ways of expressing themselves,” says Rampersad of her rapport with kids. “Some have dance training, some have natural ability but not much training.” And some will be performing on a theatre stage for the very first time. Yes, it’s tricky, agrees the choreographer. “But it’s also beautiful because you watch them cross-pollinate,” some with the experience of training and discipline, some with more access to impulse and freedom….” she says of the fight lexicon she’s been using.

Choreographer Kimberley Rampersad, Matilda The Musical. Photo supplied.

“It’s a huge learning curve for them, to learn the whole show in just over a week. It’s crazy!” she says cheerfully of her game young charges. “On the plus side, in each community kids have the chance to inspire, to see their peers up onstage. “They’re going through a lot in their lives, being tested and tried and bullied, and here they are concentrating for eight hours, learning the choreography and the music, the tech, doing the costume fittings.… They’re just inundated with information.”

Rampersad jokes with them that “I have no heart…. But if I did, It would burst every time because I’m so proud of them. My job is to make them successful. That’s the amazing thing about young people; that’s what they’re built to do, rise to the impossible.”

“I’m relentless with them!” Rampersad declares. “And if you set the bar high, they will go down swinging to meet it!” Kids are the “OK! We’ll give it a shot” people, she says. And as for the adults in the cast, Rampersad has been impressed by their flexibility and delight in adjusting to the youthful newcomers. “It’s like having a new line in hockey. And they’ve been so graceful, and hilarious, about engaging the new cast.”

Lilla Solymos in Matilda the Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

In an unusually long contract, December through July, “it’s something new and fresh for them….” It is for Rampersad, too, she says. “It’s such a nice piece to keep re-visiting,” she says of the musical that Dennis Kelly and the Australian comedian Tim Minchin spun from the Roald Dahl novel. “You think I should have done this or that, the first time, and now I can. The small adjustments, to refine the work, are making me excited too.…”

Matilda isn’t the first time Winnipeg-born and -based actor/dancer/ choreographer/ director has choreographed movement for a substantial contingent of young people. She thinks that first was Annie at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage. And that orphan brigade musical was the first she was ever in, age 10. “I come from a dance background,” she says of growing up as a “dance kid” in Winnipeg, where she taught for half a dozen years at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s ballet school, and in a high school performing arts program. “But I always wanted to be in theatre.” Why? “I always wanted to use multiple ways of telling stories….”

The life-changer, though, at age six, was a Harry Belafonte concert at Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg. “Dance, music, lights, singing! It was phenomenal! And I was apparently mesmerized,” she smiles. “The folklore in my family is that he leaned down and asked ‘Are you OK?’”

It was as an actor that Rampersad has worked before in Edmonton, in Guys and Dolls and Oliver! at the Citadel. In 2014 she was a member of the Stratford acting ensemble and a year later at Shaw, she played Nicky, Charity’s best friend, in Sweet Charity.   

Dance, choreography, and acting have led, “in a natural progression,”  to directing, Rampersad has found. As an actor from (the dance world), I’ve done a lot of ensemble work in a lot of musicals. And that gives you a bird’s eye view of everything….”  

She’s choreographed musicals of every size and shape and personality, from Passing Strange to Honk!, Hairspray to Miss Saigon. But by 2008, Rampersad was looking for chances to assistant-direct and apprentice. Since then she’s worked as an assistant director at Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre, at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and more recently at the Shaw Festival. Last season, in an apotheosis of showbiz multi-tasking, Rampersad did what few (if any) have done: she acted (in Shaw’s mainstage musical Grand Hotel) and directed (Bernard Shaw’s little-known one-act O’Flaherty VC.)  “Cuckoo!” she laughs.

And this spring, in a packed schedule of directing gigs across the country, she returns to Shaw to direct a full production of the great man’s Man and Superman, including — a theatre special occasion — its extended, rarely staged Don Juan In Hell scene. “This gives makes it the epic sweep, on the scale of ballet and opera, a style and weight I love,” she says.  

Rampersad’s Matilda day, post-coffee, includes Edmonton auditions for her upcoming production of the musical The Color Purple, opening the Citadel season in the fall. And when does this happen in Canadian theatre? She’s directing not one but two different productions of that musical this year, the first at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre in April.

“Very odd, but in a good way,” she grins. “I want, and need, them to be different….” As she points out, “it’s a big country, and there’s no shortage of talent. “I would always want to have an eye to the community the art is happening in — to invite, encourage, inspire, nurture, support and grow the community.”

Lilla Solymos in Matilda The Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Meanwhile it’s back to the prodigious little activist who steps up and sings “nobody but me is going to change my story!” There’s more than a little Matilda in Rampersad, and the way she’s built a theatre career.

“I love being everyone’s #1 cheerleader. But especially young people, Holding space for them and trying to get the best out of them. Believing in them so they can believe in themselves.”

PREVIEW

Matilda the Musical

Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Arts Club Theatre

Written by: Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, from the Roald Dahl novel

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Lilla Solymos, Anna Anderson-Epp, Ben Elliott, Lauren Bowler, Alison MacDonald, John Ullyatt

Running: through March 17

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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