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'Matilda' actor embraces gender flip for role, working with kids

| Saturday, May 28, 2016, 5:30 p.m.
Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of 'Matilda the Musical'
Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of 'Matilda the Musical'
Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of 'Matilda the Musical'
Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of 'Matilda the Musical'
Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of 'Matilda the Musical'
Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of 'Matilda the Musical'
Joan Marcus
The Broadway touring production of 'Matilda' is presented jointly by PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
Joan Marcus
'Matilda' and her classmates in a scene from the Broadway musical.
David Abeles

David Abeles has discovered it's fun to be bad.

He plays Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchen Hall, who rules with an iron fist and lives by the school's motto: “Children are maggots.”

“She is a monster,” Abeles says. The actor is performing in the national touring company of “Matilda the Musical,” which runs from May 31 to June 12 the Benedum Center, Downtown, as a joint presentation of PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

“I didn't know it would be a good fit for me,” Abeles says. “She is so much larger than life. Her language is so delicious.”

Based on Roald Dahl's children's novel, “Matilda” follows a smart, brave, book-loving girl whose wealthy, but empty-headed, parents send her off to boarding school.

Using her telekinetic powers, her imagination and her love of books, Matilda resists the school's tyranny — and eventually triumphs over Trunchbull and her reign of terror.

Originally created by the Royal Shakespeare Company, “Matilda the Musical” moved to Broadway in 2013 where it received four Tony Awards including best book of a musical, best scenic design and best lighting.

Playing a villain — or villainess — is a new experience for Abeles.

It's the first time he's played a woman, requiring an hour before each performance preparing to go onstage.

“Hair is important as a design aspect. It adds to how Miss Trunchbull looks, and I enjoy doing the makeup,” he says. The transformation is completed when he steps into the dress, which is padded with a fat suit that creates Trunchbull's enormous bosom.

Abeles' previous roles include benign characters such as Eamon in the Broadway production of “Once” and Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet,” as well as Santa Claus in the national tour of “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.”

This was his first experience playing what he calls “the baddie.”

“It came quite easily. That was the scary part,” he says. “The material is so well-written. I had not read (Dahl's) book. But what's great is we all know these characters. We have them inside of us. ... Trunchbull is an authority figure who sees the worst in people (and) takes it to another level.”

Unlike young Matilda, Abeles says his school experiences were actually pleasant. But Abeles called on some experiences of his British father to create Trunchbull.

“I created a whole back story of what she was like as a child, where she spent her childhood, the abuse she suffered,” Abeles says. “She feels like what she is doing is the only, best way to improve society. She sees kids who are entitled and ‘special.' She feels strongly about that mission to instill discipline.”

While Abeles' onstage character may be intimidating to the 13 children in the cast, the actor gets along well with them offstage.

“They know I'm just David,” he says.

Before taking on the role in “Matilda,” Abeles had not worked or toured with kids.

“It's a new experience with me, but a good one,” he says. “I think it makes touring better. ... The kids are just energetic all the time, and you see from their perspective of realizing that this is the most fun you can have.”

Abeles is impressed with the talent and professional attitudes of his young co-workers.

“They are so large a part of the show,” he says. “At times, you have to remind yourself that they are kids as well as scene partners.”

Alice Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Nightmare teachers

Miss Trunchbull is the latest meany in a long tradition of strict, demanding, bad-tempered educators and caregivers on stage and screen.

Among them:

Miss Hannigan from the musical “Annie,” teaches her orphaned charges that it is, indeed, “a hard-knock life” and makes them scrub floors “until they shine like the Chrysler Building.”

Fletcher is the abusive, demanding, sarcastic but respected music professor in the 2014 film “Whiplash.” Ruthless intimidation is only one of the techniques he uses to turn the talented 19-year-old Andrew into a first-class jazz drummer.

Fagin initiates a band of youngsters into a life of crime in Victorian London in the musical “Oliver.” He tutors Oliver Twist and the others that, “You've got to pick a pocket or two.”

Henry Brocklehurst, the tight-fisted, self-righteous, hypocritical clergyman runs the charity school, Lowood, where Jane Eyre is sent as a 9-year-old orphan. In the 1943 black-and-white movie of “Jane Eyre,” Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) and her friend Helen (Elizabeth Taylor) suffered through cold rooms, verbal abuse, bad meals, humiliation and a typhus epidemic.

Henry Higgins, the self-obsessed, tyrannical bully in “My Fair Lady,” rids Eliza Doolittle of her Cockney accent and teaches her the ways of upper-class Edwardian London.

Mr. Rooney is the principal obsessed with catching Ferris Bueller in the act of skipping school in the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller's Day Off.”

Sue Sylvester is the cheerleading coach on the TV series “Glee.” Sharp-tongued, outspoken and devious, her one pleasure in life is devising plots to destroy the school's glee club.

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