Breckenridge Backstage Theatre’s ‘Matilda Jr.’ finally makes it to the stage

Postponed show debuts at Breckenridge Theater for one weekend only

Mikaela Clark, left, and Saskia Martin-Williams perform a scene during a dress rehearsal of the musical "Matilda Jr." at the Breckenridge Theater on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 as part of the Student Theatre Enrichment Program. Clark plays headmistress Miss Trunchbull while Martin-Williams stars as Matilda.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

If there’s one thing actors know how to do, it’s how to adapt. Scripts, scenes, sets, movements, costumes and other elements frequently change as a production is fine-tuned. Breckenridge Backstage Theatre is all too familiar with adjusting during the coronavirus pandemic. A children’s musical it had in the works since 2019 finally made it to the stage on Thursday, Aug. 26.

Auditions for “Matilda” were originally held in December 2019 with rehearsals in February 2020 for the spring show at the Riverwalk Center. The pandemic pushed it back to August 2020 and then April 2021 before the show opened at the Breckenridge Theater this August.

The move to the smaller venue is partly due to the smaller cast and COVID-19 precautions. Because it is performed entirely by actors entering fourth through 12th grade, masks are required for all attendees while inside the theater.

If You Go

What: ‘Matilda Jr.’

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28; 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29

Where: Breckenridge Theater, 121 S. Ridge St., Breckenridge

Cost: $25 for adults, $12 for children 17 and younger. Visit to purchase.

Yet, the change also allows the Student Theatre Enrichment Program crew to make it a high-energy show.

“It’s not always about the big sets and the grand costumes and things like that,” co-director Abbey Austin-Guadagnoli said. “We really focus on the heart of the story and trying to communicate that the best we can with the audience.”

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, the musical tells the story about how the titular schoolgirl Matilda uses her wit — and psychokinetic powers — to save herself and her classmates from the mean headmistress Miss Trunchbull. It went to Broadway in 2013 and Austin-Guadagnoli said the music is more modern than classical productions.

“If you don’t like musical theater because you don’t like show tunes, then you’ll be fine to come and see this show,” Austin-Guadagnoli said.

Austin-Guadagnoli, who has been working with Backstage Theatre as a choreographer and performer since 2014, stepped in with co-director Lenore Giardina after Nathan Autrey resigned in 2020. The pair inherited the cast and did the best to keep people with the same parts, but some actors aged out of the role, graduated or had scheduling conflicts with the new date. Of the 25 kids total, Austin-Guadagnoli said 15 were cast in 2019 while 10 were new to the production.

“Matilda” eventually changed to the kid-friendly “Matilda Jr.” script that is one act without an intermission and 90 minutes long. After the cast reauditioned, rehearsal started with an intensive week of choreography, blocking and learning music similar to summer stock shows. Giardina said they try to treat the enrichment program like a professional job for the kids as much as possible.

The duo both enjoy how the company focuses on the community in its programming, and it’s why they continue to work with Backstage Theatre.

“I think that makes the shows really unique,” Austin-Guadagnoli said. “It’s really fun to go into a show and your doctor is on stage, your dance teacher is on stage, or that guy who works at the bank. My favorite part of the organization is their commitment to the community. They’re obviously committed to the community by offering programs such as the (enrichment program).”

It isn’t their first time working together, either. In addition to co-starring in other ensembles, Giardina has been the musical director with Austin-Guadagnoli — who is also the assistant director at Alpine Dance Academy — for three enrichment shows: “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins.”

“We work very well together,” Giardina said. “We’re a good team, a yin and a yang of directing in a way. We’re almost always on the same page, which is nice.”

Saskia Martin-Williams, right, Riley Goossen, center, Clara D'Augustine, center left, and Natalie Scott, left, preform a scene during a dress rehearsal of the musical "Matilda Jr." at the Breckenridge Theater on Tuesday, August 17, 2021. The program is using the smaller venue instead of the usual Riverwalk Center because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

Two members of the cast also have a connection to “The Little Mermaid.” It was the first performance that Mikaela Clark, 16, did with Backstage Theater in 2016, and she’s done every enrichment show since. The rising senior from Summit Cove has been acting since fifth grade and has stuck with it because of the relationships she’s made.

She plans to stay in the industry and is applying to get a bachelor’s in fine arts in musical theater at schools such as New York University, Boston University and Elon University. Her favorite aspect is the singing, and she particularly likes her jazzy number “The Smell of Rebellion.”

Clark almost didn’t sing that song, as she was initially cast as Matilda’s friendly teacher Miss Honey. Clark had to change roles when the previous actor graduated and left for college.

“Trunchbull is like the complete antithesis of Miss Honey,” Clark said. “I went through and learned a different version of the script as a brand new character looking at completely different characterizations for the same show, which was really unique and I’ve never gotten to do that before.”

“The Little Mermaid” also happens to be the first Backstage Theatre play Saskia Martin-Williams, 14, saw that inspired her to audition for “The Lion King.”

“I love it,” Martin-Williams said of acting. “Ever since I’ve done it, it’s my favorite thing to do. It’s such a good environment, I feel like.”

Her favorite part of “The Lion King” was the fact that it used a full ensemble with various characters coming and going throughout the musical.

“I thought it was cool that everyone was really involved in it,” Martin-Williams said. “Even if you didn’t have a named role or a speaking part, you were still in it.”

The rising freshman from Breckenridge has been cast as Matilda since 2019. Though she’s grown older than the role, the hardest adjustment has been the change in script. She was so used to previous lines that she found herself jumping back and forth between the two versions. However, she also appreciated how the newer script was easier to memorize.

Regardless of the challenges, all are excited that the show is finally being performed on the stage in front of a live audience. Giardina loves that she is able to express her passion for theater again.

“The fact that we all went without it, it was really tough and it was really hard for these kids, and it was really hard for people like myself who do this as their job and their life.”

Clark found it difficult to practice and stay motivated amid the cancelations.

“I’m glad I kept working through it, and I’m really glad that I had a light at the end of the tunnel because I knew this show was going to happen some point, some day,” Clark said. “I’m really glad that we finally get to have this show, and we finally get to do it after years of waiting.”

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