You can credit “The Lion King” for 12-year-old Ayla Nelson getting the lead in the Lexington Children’s Theatre’s production of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.”
The road winds back to Connecticut, where Nelson and her parents lived before moving to Lexington four years ago. One of the things they loved to do was go to Broadway shows, and one of those shows, of course, was the critically acclaimed “The Lion King.”
“There was like this giant elephant and I was like, ‘Wow. That’s so cool,’” Ayla says, recalling the parade of animal puppets down the aisles of the theater during the “Circle of Life” introduction.
Fast forward to Kentucky, and Ayla’s extracurricular focus was competitive soccer, until her parents saw that The Woodford Theatre’s eductional wing was producing “The Lion King Jr.,” and she auditioned, getting the role of young Nala.
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“It was cool because I made a lot of friends there,” Ayla said, and her mother, Hailey Nelson, added, “That’s when we decided to pursue theater.”
One show the Nelsons have not seen in Broadway adventures was “Matilda the Musical,” but they were big fans of author Roald Dahl and his book about an extraordinary intelligent little girl who uses her brains and magical gifts to help herself and others.
So, Ayla decided to audition, hoping to maybe land a role as one of Matilda’s classmates, but having the lead in the back of her mind.
“We thought it was a long shot that she would get the role,” her father, Jonah Nelson, says. “But she worked really hard leading up to it. She worked hard on her cockney accent and she put in a lot of extra time just trying to get prepared for the role.
“But we still thought it was a long shot, and we were kind of in shock when she got it.”
After all, when a director casts a big show like “Matilda,” he or she wants to have confidence that the person playing the lead will be able to to handle the part, which usually leads to casting someone the director has worked with before.
But director Jeremy Kisling says he did not hesitate to cast Ayla as Matilda.
“Ayla has a really lovely musicality about her,” Kisling says. “She’s got a really great instinct for that. That was something we noticed right away.
“This is a dance show. It’s a rock show, it’s a dance show, so we were very big on, we needed really competent movers. We were very nervous about that, but I think we found a group we’re very excited about. Ayla fit right into that.”
In the book, Matilda is actually 4, born to parents who didn’t want her and actively hate her. Obviously Children’s Theatre wasn’t looking to cast 4-year-olds, but being able to play younger than her age was a big plus for Ayla, Kisling says.
“She looks younger than she actually is, so her maturity brings a lot to her work ethic, so she’s very focused, she’s always on task, and we ask a lot of her,” Kisling says. “The thing I appreciate about her is she takes notes, and she works. Sometimes I get younger people in and I push them, and they’ll start to think they’re bad, and they’ll shut down. She’s never done that. She always works harder.”
“This show rests on the young people. The adults are in the periphery. The kids are who’s in front, and Ayla is certainly the leader of that group.”
“Matilda” has been in rehearsal since just before the end of school, so Ayla has been rehearsing all of summer vacation. One of the delights of the experience has been bonding with the cast, even old cast members such as Cavan Hendron who plays Maltilda’s lead tormentor, Miss Trunchbull, and also acted at LCT when he was growing up in Lexington.
“Everybody has been really amazing from a cast and crew perspective in helping her get ready,” Jonah Nelson says. “One of the surprises to us in theater has been what a great community it is and how they really care about each other and want to see each other succeed.”
“It’s been a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too,” Ayla says.
In Matilda, Ayla has a character she says she admires.
“She wants to find ways to help others and help herself,” Ayla says. “She has this bad life, but she wants to find ways to fix it.
“She’s magical, and she can do things. She helps everyone because she has these powers that comes from her intelligence.”
Children’s Theatre among the first in the country to produce ‘Matilda’
When “Matilda the Musical” opened on Broadway in 2013, Lexington Children’s Theatre producing director Larry Snipes says, “It was the first time I’d been on a plane in 16 years.”
His wife and LCT artistic director Vivian Snipes really wanted to see the show about a magical little girl, so off they went.
Since then, the company has been itching to produce the show, and this summer seemed like it might just be the time.
“It is our 80th season of producing plays here in Lexington, and we knew we wanted to do something special,” LCT education director Jeremy Kisling says. “We’ve been talking the last several years about the family that we create here at Lexington Children’s Theatre and so we’ve been talking about what we were going to do for our 80th and those sorts of things, and I think ‘Matilda’ really emphasizes the young people in this show and their talents and abilities.
“It epitomizes in a lot of ways what we do here at Lexington Children’s Theatre and the opportunities we give young people to perform.”
There was one hitch: the rights weren’t quite available as the theater began to plan its 80th season. But staffers at the theater encouraged the directors to ask Music Theatre International, which holds the rights to “Matilda” and many other shows, if there was a chance of getting it for this summer.
They were surprised to get a “yes,” though it came with challenges. Neither the script or orchestrations were ready until a week or less before rehearsals for the show began.
“It was a daring move, but we’re one of the first four theaters in the country to produce this show off of its tour,” Kisling says. “That’s very exciting here in the Bluegrass, to be able to do something that’s so new and so fresh.”
IF YOU GO
‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical’
When: 7:30 p.m. July 19, 20, 26 and 27; 2 p.m. July 21, 28 and 29; 2 and 7 p.m. July 22.
Where: Lexington Children’s Theatre, 418 W. Short St.
Tickets: $25 adults, $20 children