Like a soda can opened after a vicious shake, Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness and Mabel Tyler explode across the Santa Monica Pier in pursuit of the bright orange roller coaster in the corner of the boardwalk. Though they blend into the crowd of parents pushing strollers and camp kids and their counselors, these girls are not on a typical summer outing.
They are taking a break from their jobs playing Matilda, which they alternate nightly, in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book of the same name at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 12. Rushing from ride to ride, they’re earnest about making the best of their time.
“We each do two or three shows a week so we don’t always have time to do fun stuff like this, especially not together,” said Mabel, 10. “And one of us always has to be on standby if the person performing gets hurt.”
“God forbid,” interrupted Gabby and Mia, both 9. In response, Mabel bent down to knock on the boardwalk wood for good luck. When she got up, Mia wrapped her arm around the other two, pulling them tight. Their eyes then focused on a pigeon that landed nearby before shooing it away.
The story of “Matilda” is familiar to anyone who’s seen the Mara Wilson- and Danny DeVito-led film or read the childhood book that inspires the stage production. It follows an intellectually gifted elementary student as she navigates being the black sheep of her family and entering a school with a bully headmistress. When she discovers her power of telekinesis, she seeks a little revenge.
Filling the lead role with young girls who have the necessary skill set (singing, dancing and acting), said Michael David of the Dodgers, co-producers of the show with the Royal Shakespeare Company, was an intimidating process.
“The quest to find girls to play her, to shepherd the audience through her story, is daunting,” David said. “It begins with searching for young girls between the age of 8 and 10 who even at that age possess a remarkable assortment of skills and who at the same time convey the innocence, vulnerability, smarts and backbone that Matilda has to have when facing the dual challenges of truly awful parents and an even worse school headmistress. We tend to find this rare combination of traits in nonprofessionals.”
Mabel, Mia and Gabby, however, were nothing but professional, besting nearly 500 others for the role. But as young thespians, playing Matilda isn’t easy.
Gabby said the hardest part of playing the child genius is “focusing and keeping a straight face when there’s a lot of sounds in the audience.”
Mabel agreed, saying, “It takes a lot of focus to be Matilda,” especially since she loves to smile.
But once in a while, their attention does wander when props don’t work as they should or they forget lines. In those instances, they were taught the process of “canceling and continuing.”
“If you step on a sidewalk crack while walking on the streets of New York, you don’t go back and redo it,” Gabby explained. “You just keep going.”
The young actresses each come to the “Matilda” national tour, booked through January 2017, with a number of stage experiences. Gabby, from Springfield, N.J., got her start in show business with piano, which she played for five years. After her piano teacher, who also was a vocal coach, had her sing the scales one practice session, Gabby became a voice student as well.
Stage performances seemed like the next logical step, she said. Before “Matilda,” Gabby played Annie Who in the national tour of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
As for Mia, her interest in stage began at age 4 with a Wonka candy bar. After being bribed into an audition by a friend’s mom in which she booked the lead, she was bitten by the bug. Mia, from New York City, has since had a number of roles including in “Les Misérables” on Broadway and the national tour and NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!”
“Matilda” is Mabel’s first national tour after having regional credits including “Tuck Everlasting,” “Les Misérables” and “Mary Poppins.” From Atlanta, she began acting after getting bored following three years of gymnastics. After seeing a local production of “Annie” and “The Sound of Music,” she petitioned her mom for an activity change.
“I said that’s really cool and I want to do this,” Mabel remembered telling her mom at 5 years old. “I don’t really think gymnastics is right for me. I can’t be myself and be a gymnast.”
Gabby, Mabel and Mia hold their own onstage across from adult veterans including Jennifer Blood (Broadway’s “Violet”), who plays Miss Honey, and Quinn Mattfeld (Broadway’s “Pal Joey”) and Cassie Silva (Broadway’s “Rock of Ages”), who play Matilda’s parents. From Broadway’s “Hair,” Bryce Ryness plays the principal, Miss Trunchbull.
For all three of the play’s leading ladies, playing Matilda is like an extension of their everyday lives as they too, like the character they play, have a deep appreciation for and love of books.
“Reading, reading, reading,” screamed the group in unison when asked their favorite thing to do offstage.
Resident director Ryan Emmons said this aspect of the girls is one thing he’s enjoyed most in working with them and that helps them better embody Matilda.
“The three of them are voracious readers, so I think they connect to Matilda in that way,” he said. “In playing the role, they all want to read even more, which is something we hope other kids who come to the show take away.”
Some of the books on the trio’s favorites list put those of their older counterparts to shame.
Gabby’s favorite is “The Giver” by Lois Lowry, a novel her sister read in eighth grade. She loves its message “that it’s OK to be different,” she said. She also loves the “amazing” work of Jerry Spinelli.
Mabel likes Spinelli’s books in addition to Louis Sachar’s “Holes,” Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia” and anything by Patricia Polacco, “even though her books are for littler kids,” she said.
According to Mia, “Harry Potter is [her] life.” (She “loved, loved, loved” her visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Fla.) But when not gushing over her favorite characters, Luna Lovegood, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and Wilson Rawls’ “Where the Red Fern Grows” rank high on her list.
Mabel, Mia and Gabby gawk over one another’s book choices. They act as if they’ve known one another since birth even though they first met a few months ago at the final callbacks in the audition process. Gabby remembered that moment (and a distinct smell of “bad popcorn, then dried cow poop,” she said, coming from the piano).
When the three were the only ones left in a room while the others went to the bathroom, they clung to one another. Though initially competitors, they formed a bond that would help them peg one another for the role, which they are expected to fill for about nine months.
“After the audition, I told my mom that I think these two would probably get into ‘Matilda,’” Gabby said. “They’re awesome.”
Mia said she told the same to her mom, noting how glad she was to share the role with the other two. “There’s not a single bad bone in each of their bodies,” Mia said. “I love them. They’re great.”
At the pier, the girls make one last plea to squeeze in a final spin on Inkie’s Scrambler, a swirling ride that rotates at a speed of more than 11 revolutions per minute. Stumbling off, they walk up to their parents and grandparents (who have followed them from attraction to attraction for the last two hours) reaching for the pink and white unicorns they each won earlier in the day. As they all grip their stuffed animals, Mia — due to take the stage this night — whispers of her next steps for the day.
“Back to work.”