EL CENTRO – “Where is your hat,” asked a producer. “My hat!” responded the adolescent actor, walking off stage to find the prop that is also part of her costume, as the producer and director chuckled.

Such was the scene as the youth far and wide of the Imperial Valley worked on their last dress rehearsal before this weekend’s slew of shows.

The North County Coalition for the Arts (NOCCA) presents Matilda Jr. The Musical at the Sunflower Elementary School Multipurpose Room this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May 19-21, in El Centro. The community play marks the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic that NOCCA puts on any theatre shows, Matilda Jr. Director and now worldwide thespian, Dylan Hale, said just before the final rehearsal got underway on Thursday, May 18 at the school.

“NOCCA was planning on doing ‘Cinderella’ and they had to cancel it because of the pandemic,” Hale said, “so its been since 2019 that these boxes of equipment have been opened up.”

Hale, originally from Brawley, returned to the Imperial Valley after earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts from University of California Santa Barbara in 2012 and building his theatrical resume, acting and directing theater in New York City, Beijing, China, and teaching for the Pauline Quirke Academy of the Performing Arts in Mallorca, Spain while on a short hiatus back home in the Valley before moving to London, England later this summer.

“I’ve been teaching theater in Spain, the (United Kingdom) and China for the last five years or so, so this is like a beautiful thing for me to be able to come back and work with my old theater company and direct a show for them,” Hale said on Thursday.

“Oh I cry all the time,” Hale said about being able to give back the gift of acting to his own Imperial Valley area, becoming slightly emotional, noting he is happy to work with one of his best friends from Brawley Union High School, Alana Kruger. “It’s a crazy coincidence of events but it’s so much fun,” Hale said.

Matilda Jr. is “the story of an extraordinary little girl with extraordinary powers,” according to stageagent.com. “The daughter of abusive parents, Matilda finds refuge in library books, which she reads quickly and in creating her own stories. Brave little Matilda knows has to stand up against the (abusive) adults in her world … Matilda’s bravery teaches (her friendly teacher) Miss Honey and her classmates an important lesson,” the synopsis reads.

“It’s the story of Matilda, the Roald Dahl book, and it’s really exciting because it just dropped on Netflix in December,” Hale said, “so we're meeting that in the moment because it’s really in the cultural zeitgeist right now. The kids are obsessed with the music because the dances are on TikTok, so we've even put some of that into our show.”

“The show is great because it’s about a little girl who stands up to a bully and I think it’s a great message for right now,” Hale said, “especially to be working with all these kids, who lost so much through the pandemic.”

Hale said the cast of local children hail from all over the Imperial Valley – including El Centro, Imperial, Holtville and Calipatria – with the cast ages ranging from 8- to 18-years-old.

The cast were a mix of nervous excitement, slight apprehension and seasoned stage-type bravery as they were being interviewed just before their final dress rehearsal before the play begins today, Friday, May 19, for the students at Sunflower Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Brianna Porras of El Centro, who plays Matilda’s best friend “Lavender,” said when she asked her mother if she could audition for the NOCCA play “she said, ‘You can do this but don’t get your hopes up.’”

Porras said she’s “definitely not” nervous because “I don’t have that many lines, but I still have to make sure I do the scene on key.”

“I’m not nervous because it’s easy to learn and it’s really fun,” the first-time play actor said. “I know I got this.”

The elder actors were somewhere in between on the nerves-scales.

“I’ve always enjoyed musicals … since early middle school,” 18-year-old Imperial resident Malachi Alvarez, who will be playing “Mr. Wormwood,” said.

Malachi Alvarez said technically this was not a personal first in a theatrical performance though Alvarez hasn’t performed in theatre since second grade. Mr. Wormwood would be Alvarez's first speaking role in theatre.

“I’ve always wanted to do it but there aren’t really many chances I’ve had to do this yet,” Alvarez said.

“It’s been a lot of chaos,” Alvarez said with a bit of a grin. “I’m seeing all these kids running around all in Crocs, and sometimes their Crocs fall off and they’re climbing up the pillars barefooted but it’s fun to watch,” Alvarez mused.

“It’s very chaotic but we get stuff done and it’s very fun,” 16-year-old Emily Beltran of Calipatria, playing “Mrs. Wormwood” this weekend, said.

“I’m nervous considering the fact that it’s tomorrow but I think we’ll do good considering all the rehearsal we’ve done,” Beltran said.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Alvarez said. “It’s that space between worry where it’s coming up and worry where like, ‘oh, it’s here,’” Alvarez said.

The weekend’s stars – a very poised 10-year-old named Charliann Denton of Holtville, and a cute-as-a-button 9-year-old Emma Samaniego of Imperial – will both be playing the titular “Matilda” character throughout the four different showings of Matilda Jr. The Musical.

Both “Matildas” were not only both excited and slightly shocked to earn the part in their respective auditions, but they also said they can relate to the character in some ways.

“My dad was the one that told me about (the NOCCA play) and … I heard my friends were doing it so I tried out,” the smiley Samaniego said. “They asked me to audition again .., and (later) my mom woke me up super early and was like, ‘Emma, you got Matilda!’ I didn’t think I was going to get it.”

“I like how she is kind of like me,” Denton said of the character. “We both love to read books. She’s my favorite character in all the different movies.”

Denton’s third play and Samaniego’s first-ever, both did not seem that phased before their last rehearsal.

“I’m nervous but actually really really excited,” Denton said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually be here,” she said.

“I think the students will get (from the play) that they have to be nice but sometimes you can get a little revenge on people, but too much revenge,” Denton said of Matilda defending herself against bullies in the play.

“And I think the parents will get to see us play different personalities,” she said.

“I feel like I’ll do good because I learned all my lines but I’m just really scared,” Samaniego said with a smile.

And a confidence boost it must end up being, as multiple actors said they enjoy playing characters, getting to play in different personalities and ‘be something you normally aren’t.’

“It’s amazing because when I was a kid this is what I needed,” Hale said, “so when you’re an adult and you’re able to give children what you needed when you were a kid it just feels wonderful.”

“Dylan is a really nice person and he makes all of this so fun,” Samaniego said.

The North County Coalition for the Arts’ Matilda Jr. The Musical will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 19 and Saturday, May 20 as well as a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, May 21 at the Sunflower Elementary School Multipurpose Room, located at 2450 Main Street in El Centro. Tickets can be purchased online at northcountycoalitionforthearts.org and showtix4u.com.

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