BAR HARBOR — Dani Robbins wants to assure the cast and crew of the musical she’s directing that, even though the performances have been postponed, the time and effort they’ve put in is by no means lost.
The work of theater can “prepare us to be better people in real life and deal with real struggles,” she said.
Robbins is directing the Acadia Community Theater production of “Matilda,” which was scheduled to perform in early April at Mount Desert Island High School. When news came late last week that Governor Janet Mills was recommending against large gatherings to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, and then the school closure was announced, the group decided to call off the show, at least for now.
A farewell gathering and showcase was planned for Saturday afternoon, but that was also cancelled for safety.
“There’s a lot of grief and mourning” on the part of the cast and production team because they won’t perform anytime soon, Robbins told the Islander this weekend.
“But the real work of theatre is what happens behind the scenes,” she said. “Performing is just 10 percent of it. The real work that community arts do, has been done. They’ve participated in that and brought that to life already and they have that to take with them. So I hope they take solace in that.”
This production of “Matilda” by Dennis Kiley and Tim Minchin, based on the classic book by Roald Dahl, features a cast of thousands — between cast and crew, about 85 people have been involved.
Indeed, the story of “Matilda” has some themes that are helpful in uncertain times. The small, precocious girl has a really tough life. She grows up in a family where the parents may not have noticed if she came home one day with a broken leg. She goes to a horrific school whose Latin motto translates to “children are maggots.”
Matilda’s response to that bad situation is a helpful model, Robbins said, as the community hunkers down to weather the pandemic. She finds allies, speaks up and encourages others.
“Choosing peace and calm in the face of fear, which Matilda does,” is a good goal for all of us, she said. “She chooses a lot of bravery and is not silent in the face of wrongdoing. With how much noise there is right now, Matilda is very organized and she’s very calm in her efforts against evil.”
Robbins honors the cast and crew for the time they devoted to the project.
“They’re doing so much these days, the fact that the families carved out this much time to be present is really a gift.”
Matilda is played by Lucia Dilena of Ellsworth, who just recently turned eight years old. “She’s quick as a whip,” Robbins said, “so present in every rehearsal and excited to do the work.”
And she’s so much smaller than Miss Trunchbull, the primary villain, played by Matt Cornish, that it creates a funny, cartoonish dynamic. It helps illustrate for the audience that small children have a quite different vantage point, literally, and way of perceiving what’s going on around them.
Cornish himself, who has worked as professional actor and is also camp director at Camp Beech Cliff, “has been so, so great to work with,” Robbins said. “Having a professional actor to ground that kind of a setting helps complete Acadia Community Theater’s mission of being an educational theatre company.”
Playing Matilda’s self-involved parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are Thomas VanGorder and Liz Rabasca. Adam Losquadro plays her brother Michael.
Mr. Wormwood is a nasty, slimy used car salesman. In this production his shop includes a couple of those inflatable balloon people used to attract customers’ attention, played by Claire Sanner and Ava Philbrook.
“They’re skeptical of their boss,” Robbins said, “Kind of the way you would suspect somebody wearing a hot dog suit probably doesn’t love their job.”
Aly Zavestocki plays Miss Honey, the teacher who becomes Matilda’s ally. Robbins called Miss Honey “a sweet spot role” for Zavestocki. “She’s a sweetheart in real life too. She has a really beautiful voice.”
Harlan Mahoney plays Bruce Bogtrotter, a student who’s often the target of Miss Trunchbull’s wrath. “He changes from this sugar-greedy kid to, by the end, someone who has really figured out who he is,” Robbins said. He leads his fellow students in a revolution in a rock ballad called “Revolting Children.”
The kids include Lucy Rogers as Lavender, Nayeli Monahan as Nigel, Blake Thieken as Reginald, Clara Levin as Amanda Thripp, Anna Rabasca as Eric, Harmony Hopkins as Hortensia, Matilda Halney as Tommy and Ava Philbrook as Rudolpho, as well as Rosie Ellis, Rita Farrenkopf, Maya LaPlant, Nahia Marcial, Harper Miller-Rushing, Clementine Mislang and Molly Tadenev.
Isabel Bohrer, who directed the pit orchestra for last spring’s “Freaky Friday,” was the music director for this production. And the music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are quite challenging.
There are “strange timings and more lyrics pumped into a measure than should ever be allowed,” said Matt Hochman, the production’s technical director. “Minchin makes Sondheim look easy. There are layers of different lyrics all at the same time, and really young kids doing this amazing vocal work.”
And there are unusual harmonies, rock-opera-esque, that Robbins said remind her of Queen.
“I think it’s the hardest musical score I’ve seen a community theater taken on,” she said.
Despite having such a large cast, more than 45 people, most actors play multiple roles.
An ensemble of “Big Kids” is made up of adults and some older kids. “There are kids playing kids and also a whole host of adults playing kids,” Robbins said. “That was a lot of fun with adults, working with them to develop these crazy movement vocabularies. They just took it and ran with it.”
The Big Kids also help create seamless set changes, creating the effect “that Matilda’s world is dissolving or spilling into the next scene,” Robbins said. That group includes Jonathan Bender, Cecilia Blackett, Zoe Boland, Jamie Creed, Judith Cullen, Amaya Eddy, Emily Ellis, Lollie Ellis, Jac Fitzpatrick, Lilu Fuksman, Rose Iuro-Damon, Jennifer Joseph, Maddie Langley, Elissa Laplant, Losquadro, Philbrook, Alissa Richards and Lorain Smart.
Stage manager and assistant director Kate Young, a recent College of the Atlantic graduate, was most recently involved with “The Mystery of Irma Vep” at the Criterion Theatre.
“She was really the encyclopedia of the production,” Robbins said of Young. “She knew all the working details of every prop, every line, every cue.”
Young, Robbins and Zach Taibi are also at work on an original paper animation piece to be projected during the show.
And with such a large cast, it was helpful to have many leaders including Robbins, Young, Bohrer and Claire Sanner as dance captain. That made it possible to split into groups and work on more than one song or scene at a time.
Robbins herself is relatively new to Acadia Community Theater, having first worked with the group last year as the choreographer of “Freaky Friday.” She studied contemporary performance at Bennington College and works as the dance coordinator at ArtWaves.
“I was really energized by the community that ACT develops,” she said.
The organization’s Board of Directors has been in contact with Music Theatre International, which licensed “Matilda” for the originally planned dates.
“They are being very supportive in terms of helping people reschedule,” Hochman said. “They’re getting thousands of requests to postpone.”
He emphasized that the production has been postponed, not cancelled, though some roles may need to be recast if the whole team is not available on the new dates.
“Our hope is maybe we can put it on in July or August, possibly in December in place of our Christmas show, or do the show this time next year,” he said.