Behind the scenes as rehearsals begin for spring musical, ‘Matilda’

You can tell spring is coming when minivans are parked in the spot nearest the school lobby at all times. The white Chrysler and blue Nissan vans belong to John and Anu Kaasik, and their presence is a more reliable sign of the annual spring musical than the groundhog’s shadow. 

It’s a beloved Island event that showcases the heavenly voices, nimble dance moves, and dramatic gifts of Shelter Island’s most talented students, an experience that students here often describe as the most satisfying of their high school career.

This year’s show is “Matilda,” a musical based on a hilarious and edgy children’s book by Roald Dahl. It’s a show made for Shelter Island, with the recurring line, “My mother says I’m a miracle,” as much a mantra of modern childhood here as anywhere.

The adults in the room are Director John Kaasik; Anu Kaasik who coordinates all aspects of scheduling, rehearsals and costumes; choreographer Laura Dickerson; and acting coach Susan Cincotta. Off-stage, Julia Brennan is making the school uniforms for the entire cast and Peter Waldner is painting the sets. 

Bring a supply of tissues to the performances. Mr. Kaasik describes “Matilda” as a story of good and evil, of an extraordinary girl born into a family that does terrible things, who is sent to a school led by the evil Agatha Trunchbull and the wonderful teacher, Miss Honey, who recognizes her brilliance, and saves her. 

“It has a tender side that I really want to work to get out,” Mr. Kaasik said. “The scenes where there is goodness are a relief from all the craziness. I look at a scene like that and I think, I have to melt those scenes.” 

When the director says he’s melting a scene, he’s referring to the way he works with an actor over many days of rehearsal to achieve a performance that expresses the pathos of the situation. “I keep working on it,” he said.

That work is the subject of this and a series of reports the Reporter will publish every week from now until opening night, Thursday, March 26. We’ll report on how costumes have been sewn, how the sets have been painted, and how the stars have been cast, but the real story is the creation by the cast and crew of a fictional world with joy, sadness, cruelty, evil, goodness and kindness. 

As of this week, all the major parts are cast, and most actors are “off the book,” meaning they have learned their lines.

The scenes where there is goodness are a relief from all the craziness.

John Kaasik

Rehearsals of the big dance numbers have started, and they are intense, with a lot of bodies in motion in a finite space. “We are really concentrated on traffic control,” Mr. Kaasik said.

Individual characters come later. “They are going to start feeling it, especially those caricature characters,” he added. “In these first weeks of rehearsal, each actor is creating their character, and making it their own. It’s fun watching these characters coming to life on stage. Each day we learn something about them.”

Even more than in past years, Mr. Kaasik has to look out for signs of exhaustion in his actors. A new policy gives students the option to participate in an additional sport, and by 8 on a recent Friday night, some cast members were clearly exhausted. 

He suggested, to a principal actor who was doing a lot of involuntary yawning, that he could leave him out of some crowd scenes, to give him a break. The student said no way. He wanted to do them all.

Mr. Kaasik often gives his actors room to improvise, and try things out to see if they work. In the middle of one raucous musical number, he told Nick Labrozzi, who plays the evil Trunchbull, to run through the back row of the chorus, smacking the students to see how they react, but “without being sadistic.” 

“But Nick actually is a sadist,” yelled someone in the back row, and everyone laughed, most of all Nick. 

“Matilda” may be the perfect musical for Shelter Island, a place with a lot of people who love their kids and think they are very special. They make the director’s job a little easier. 

“So many of them are so well brought up. It’s a pleasure to work with them,” he said.

Performances of “Matilda” commence on Thursday, March 26 and run through Sunday, March 29.