As Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who befriends the fiercely intelligent Matilda, Ora Jones found that she needed to serve as a bridge between the audience and a rotating cast of children in the role. In the first national tour of “Matilda the Musical,” three separate girls (Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness, and Mabel Tyler) play the title character. But no matter who is on, Jones finds herself working with a very small child. “It’s a big story, it’s a big stage,” said Jones during a recent phone interview, “and the Matildas are little. If you are out there with them, you do everything to make sure that the audience knows where to focus.”
Because every child role is triple-cast, Jones finds that energy varies greatly from night to night. “Young performers are spontaneous in the way that children are,” she said. “In all of my scenes are with Matilda, it is very important for me, and for the young actresses, that I give them as much energy as possible.” Like her character, Jones tries to be “truly listening and in the moment” throughout the evening.
In “Matilda the Musical,”which opened on August 18 in Seattle, the title character uses her vivid imagination to lead a rebellion in the British equivalent of a first grade class. As the children overcome a comic villain of a school headmistress, Matilda, with the support of the librarian Mrs. Phelps and her teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), manages to break away from an even more horrible home life.
One of the challenges of transitioning the story from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book to a mega-musical was finding a way to give Matilda’s often internal thoughts and stories an outlet. This led to the development of the character of Mrs. Phelps as a sounding board, said Jones.
A regular in the Chicago theater scene and a member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company ensemble, Jones wasn’t planning to join a big Broadway touring show when her agent called about the “Matilda” audition.
“I wasn’t interested initially. I had projects coming up. I had started to work on a new piece. But my agent called and said “would you like to audition tomorrow?” I’m not a professional singer. I can sing but I’m not someone who has a book to pull out for an audition. Still I thought it would be a great way to meet these people and maybe down the line they’ll remember me for another show,” said Jones.
After that initial meeting in Chicago, Jones went into rehearsal for another show and basically forgot about the “Matilda” audition until her agent called. This time she was asked to fly out to New York for a second casting call. “I had a very generous director who let me take off for a day. So there I am, getting into the city at 1 p.m. and then leaving New York at 6 p.m. to go back to Chicago,” she said. “It was a dance call (audition) and I’m not a dancer. I left thinking that it was fun and that was it.”
Then her agent called again and told her that she had been cast as Mrs. Phelps. “I really did have to think about it,” said Jones. “It meant giving up my apartment and traveling for a year. That did take some consideration. Then I decided that I was not put on the planet not to do new things. So now I’m getting paid to travel for a year. Quite a transition!”
The tour’s long stop at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre allows Jones to become reacquainted with a city that she hasn’t seen for 25 years. “I was at a show at ACT then but I haven’t been back since,” she said.
Tim Minton’s high energy music often propels the cast through the ever changing set at breakneck speeds. “I’ve never had an experience like this,” said Jones. “I’ve been in this business a long time but this piece is always moving. You always have to keep moving with it. One beautiful song that Matilda sings is “Quiet.” I enjoy that because it is a quiet moment in the play. But all of the songs are very unique. I really can’t pin down a single favorite. There’s just so much to love about it!”
“Matilda the Musical” runs now through Sept. 6 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue, in Seattle. For tickets and times, see the theater’s website.