GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Co-directors Erin Dilly and Heather Ballantyne have had their work cut out for them since September, when rehearsals for the Gas Lamp Junior Players’ production of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” began. The show represents the first time the child corps will stage a Broadway-length production, one in which nearly 100 children have been cast.
“Heather and I are a perfect team,” Dilly said recently before a rehearsal at Ridgewood Avenue School while Ballantyne moved nonstop around the theater. “She notices a billion things, but I have the big picture. In the middle of all of this, whether they want to be an actor or not, the kids will come away with a sense of collaboration and improved self-esteem. I still remember the shows I did when I was their age.”
For actors ages 9 to 13, being part of a full-length musical has challenges and rewards. But kids are still kids, and their attention spans on a late Friday afternoon, Dilly pointed out, after a full week of school, can wane. Parents, in fact, were required to sign an agreement that their children would behave during rehearsals. But, in addition to the sense of accomplishment the young actors feel, there is also a low after the curtain comes down.
“The kids will really miss each other,” Dilly said. “It’s so many mixed emotions in the last show. There’s the high of your performance and the low of saying goodbye. But Heather and I are there to tell them the sun will come up tomorrow.”
Dilly, who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2005 for the leading role of Truly Scrumptious in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” is married to the Broadway performer Stephen Buntrock.
“None of the kids I direct know I’ve worked on Broadway for 25 years,” she said. “I’d have it no other way. There’s a purity in the relationship. They know me as Miss Dilly or Mrs. Buntrock. They have to learn that their director is akin to their teacher.”
The title role of Matilda will be played by two girls in different performances — Claire Liotta of Glen Ridge and Lily Yezdanian of Clifton.
“Both of these girls have an other-worldly quality,” Dilly said. “They are such intelligent actresses, wise beyond their years. The character of Matilda is young, but she’s an old soul. That’s a quality these girls have.”
The story of “Matilda” mainly takes place in a school setting so uniforms make up a big part of the costuming, which is being handled by Rennae Pelayo, the Gas Lamp business director. Eighty-five school uniforms were purchased, according to Pelayo, who said Gas Lamp usually makes many of its costumes.
“We’ve already been asked to rent these out to other organizations doing the show,” Pelayo said.
“Matilda” will be performed at Ridgewood Avenue School on Friday, Nov. 22, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 23, at 1 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 24, at 1 p.m. Admission is charged.