A mashup of potential Matildas work on a new dance combination onstage at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.
"How many Matildas are there in a show?" The question boomed through the Historic Iao Theater, Wailuku, in a voice of fire and brimstone.
A little-and-not-so-little girls chorus piped up in unison. "One!"
"One," the booming voice confirmed. One Sunday in mid-September, an intense afternoon of callbacks for "Roald Dahl's Matilda, the Musical" was drawing to a close. For the last half-hour, the musical director, Robert E. Wills, had been riding herd on all the girls under consideration for the title role to let loose in the taxing solo called "Quiet."
"In the theater we're all boys and girls," Wills had earlier decreed, "no matter how old we are."
Like Tim Minchin's entire score for the show, "Quiet" layers intricate vocal writing on top of tongue-twisting lyrics and plenty of them. Now Wills was
steeling the young hopefuls and very possibly also himself for the coming crunch.
"You never know why a person gets chosen," Wills continued, giving it to them straight. "Maybe they wanted someone with red hair. Maybe they wanted someone with blond hair. Or they were looking for someone taller or shorter or older or younger. If you didn't get the part, you're still very good! What you've been doing here, sight-reading this difficult music — that was hard."
YOU REMEMBER Matilda, the elfin 5-1/2-year-old who gets back at her cartoonishly hateful parents with seriously wicked pranks? Who to the amazement of her teacher Miss Honey can rattle off the answer to 14 times 19 on her first day of school and has already taught herself to read Dickens and Hemingway and "The Sound and the Fury."
Matilda, who when push comes to shove bests the hammer-throwing, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull with strategic deployments of mind over matter.
"People say it's about girl power," says Jennifer Rose, the director of the show, who observed most of the auditions in silence, from the shadows. "I say it's also just about personal power, about taking action, right action. I love it that Matilda's such a good student but appropriately just a little bit naughty. That's a positive message for kids and grown-ups. Really, Matilda's story is all of our story. We're the only ones who are going to make a change in our own story. We can't wait around."
The stage, it often seems, is like an air terminal, where passengers' trajectories converge for a spell before dispersing again to who knows what future destinations. The audition process in Wailuku had turned up a bumper crop of potential Matildas.
Angular Matildas and willowy Matildas. Petite Matildas and long-stemmed Matildas.
A sassy, round-faced big sister (at a guess) who loves to toss her lion's mane.
A pre-Raphaelite imp with tumbling curls of flame who keeps her chin down and peers out from under shy, mischievous eyebrows, missing nothing. To her left, a serious, dark-eyed dreamer, poised as a ballerina.
A pale Renaissance Madonna minus only the halo. A square-shouldered, easygoing rodeo rat (another guess) aglow with a touch of late-summer sun.
Tackling Tim Minchin was not the only curve thrown the girls' way that afternoon. For starters, Camille Romero, the choreographer, had been putting them through their paces in a spiffy movement combination, not only to test their speed and quickness with the steps, but also on the lookout for those all-important sparks of personality.
DANCING ALONG with the Matildas at that point were 14 other players who had survived the first cut, including four boys, ages 11 to 17, offering another study in contrasts: the loose-limbed surfer dude, the junior fashion plate a season or two away from his first print campaign for Armani, a crown prince straight out of "The King and I," a best friend who goes first only if the teacher makes him. Tryouts, especially with the youngest actors, make a casting director of anyone.
Visitors from capitals like London and New York, where theater is king, think of Maui, if they think of Maui, for the ocean, the beaches and maybe the sunrise over Haleakala. Yet if you're local and the stage is a thing you live for, the playhouses on island can keep you crazy busy.
Just ask Marsi Smith, who says she likes nothing better than to go straight from show to show. And sure enough, she opened at the Iao Theater in the speaking role of the cougar Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," adapted from the Mike Nichols movie, two weeks to the day since she raised her hand for her next assignment.
It happened to be midafternoon on Friday the 13th when she bounced with the announcement, "I'm here for Matilda!" Then she lit into "Always True to You (In My Fashion)," the bouncy material- girl confession from the Cole Porter classic "Kiss Me, Kate," and just crushed it.
"I stand 4 foot 10 without my heels, which I'm never without," Smith said later, "so people tease me, not all in jest, about playing children's parts. This time I thought I'd tease them first. Hey, you never know!"
No, you never do. "Say," said Wills, after Smith aced it and vanished, "suppose we cast this thing age-reversed. Kids in the grown-up parts, grown-ups as kids?"
"That would be interesting," Rose drawled. "Let's not do that."
RATHER THAN Matilda, Smith landed Matilda's mother, Mrs. Wormwood, a gargoyle who teases her hair out to there, sings like an air raid siren and barrels through her competition rumba like a runaway locomotive. Her big number ("Loud") is a cruel catalog of zingers fired at the mousy but caring Miss Honey, played by Sara Jelley, a Maui favorite since her breakthrough in the title role of "Mary Poppins."
Dale Bottom, a local fixture, went up for the drag part of the sadistic Miss Trunchbull and got it, which cannot have surprised him; Francis Tuau, another familiar face, returns as Matilda's father, Mr. Wormwood, the flashiest used-car salesman in the U.K.'s 48 counties and the crookedest.
If such choices for the grown-up leads almost made themselves, casting the kids has to have been agony. "This isn't really a big kid show," Rose explains. "There aren't a ton of kids in it, just 16. We cast maybe a third of the people who auditioned. We didn't have roles for everyone."
And what about Matilda? With seven to choose from, how could Rose and Wills and Romeo settle on just one?
"As a matter of fact, in this case," Rose replies, "two Matildas are gonna swing. Partly because it's kids and so many were so capable, and partly because on two Saturdays in December, we've got two shows. That's a lot."
Depending on the date, you'll be watching Calilynn Salzer, the pre-Raphaelite imp, or Shayla Sanchez, with the poise of a ballerina. How to choose? It won't be easy.