Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Tre’vell An­der­son a lot trev­­der­ Twit­ter: @Trevel­lAn­der­son

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

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.”

Ex­pe­ri­enced on­stage

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).

Ri­vals, then friends

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.”

Christina House For The Times

Joan Mar­cus Cen­ter Theatre Group

MIA SIN­CLAIR JEN­NESS is one of three girls who play the ti­tle role in the mu­si­cal “Matilda” at the Ah­man­son.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

MA­BEL TYLER and the other two girls, like the char­ac­ter they play, have a love of books and read a lot when not work­ing.

Cen­ter Theatre Group

GABBY GU­TIER­REZ said one of the most chal­leng­ing parts of play­ing the child ge­nius Matilda is stay­ing fo­cused.

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