W.C. Fields may have said, “Never work with children or animals,” but Peter Flynn, who is directing “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” at Olney Theatre Center this summer, is not on board with that.
“It’s been a wonderful — and I mean that word, I’m ‘filled with wonder’ — experience,” said Flynn. “Working with young minds and souls who say, ‘I’m here, I’m willing and I want to be a part of this.’”
And who wouldn’t want to be part of it: Based on the 1988 novel by celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl, “Matilda” started out as a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, moved to London’s West End and then to Broadway and beyond, garnering critical acclaim and audience devotion. It’s the story of a precocious little girl whose brilliance goes unnoticed by her vapid, crooked, television-watching parents — and whose adventures taking down the school bully and saving the day in myriad ways unfold onstage in an explosion of song and dance.
Flynn’s cast features D.C. theater favorites (and Olney stalwarts) like Felicia Curry, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Christopher Michael Richardson and Tom Story playing the grown-ups and two ensembles — including fourth-grader Emiko Dunn in the title role — playing the kids.
“They’re relentlessly enthusiastic, curious and willing — and I think everyone benefits from it,” said Flynn. “There’s a very collegial experience among the generations that’s delightful to be part of.”
The experience, Flynn said, is enriched by the addition of choreographer Byron Easley, head of dance at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a frequent collaborator, and the music direction of Christopher Youstra, who also conducts the eight-piece orchestra that lets this musical take flight. Kids, comedy, music, mayhem, a tyrannical villain and an unlikely hero — “Matilda” keeps the director on his toes.
“Oh, it’s fascinating,” said Flynn, who has a 15-year-old son with his wife, the actress/singer Andréa Burns. “I love going to work. I can honestly say that!”
Growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, Flynn’s dad was a radio executive who brought home promotional Broadway cast recordings. “My first albums were ‘Cabaret,’ ‘1776’ and ‘Company,’” he said, “and I wore them thin; they just sort of became my DNA.” He’d listen and imagine what the actual shows looked like, long before he started performing. Flynn earned a bachelor of science degree in communications at Northwestern University, and while he began his career as an actor, even making it to Broadway, it was always the director’s role he envisioned.
“There are two things I really enjoy about directing,” said Flynn, who’s been doing it for more than 20 years. “The narrative that’s in front of us and has to be embodied, and the sense of collaboration: Who has the next great idea in the room, and how do we manifest that?
“Director is a big word,” he added. “I actually think ‘facilitator’ is more useful. How do I facilitate good work and sharpening of craft onstage? I just really enjoy being in the room when a discovery is made, or something turns.”
Facilitating a musical based on a Roald Dahl story means reaching back into childhood. The author, who died in 1990 at age 74, wrote 20 books for children, most of them in pencil on yellow legal pads, and some as he sat in a converted Romany horse cart in his backyard.
“I certainly read him as a young adult,” said Flynn. “‘James and the Giant Peach,’ ‘The BFG,’ ‘Charlie,’ of course, and ‘Matilda.’ There’s something inherently ‘naughty’ about him, to use Matilda’s word.”
The director said he likes the word naughty, as distinct from bad, or wicked, or mean. “There’s something inherently mischievous,” he pointed out, “and a slight dose of innocence in ‘naughty.’”
The qualities of naughtiness, innocence and other-ness run deep in the work of Dahl, who was born in Wales to Norwegian immigrant parents and had a stellar career as a World War II flying ace and a British intelligence officer (alongside James Bond creator Ian Fleming) before becoming a prolific and profoundly popular author. Although he successfully wrote stories for adults, Dahl’s magical, mischievous children’s books made him a superstar — literally: in 2012 the British newspaper The Independent named Dahl one of “Britain’s top ten children’s literature superstars.”
“He has an enormous sense of compassion,” said Flynn. “I think that’s what is so attractive about his stories: you get to be in the presence of people who are misbehaving, but also being remarkably aware of those around them and the impact of their actions or their words. That’s a universal thing.”
The director compared Dahl to Stephen Sondheim, noting that both authors are “very smart, and interested in skepticism and resignation and duplicity, but at the base is an enormous sense of compassion.” The comparison is understandable, considering that the New York based director, an associate artist at Ford’s Theatre in D.C., came to Olney after directing Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at Ford’s.
“This is my first time at Olney,” he said, noting that members of his previous casts have spoken highly of OTC. “I’ve been hoping this opportunity would present itself, because I’ve heard so much about the sense of collaboration and community here.”
It’s a community where Flynn feels increasingly at home, having worked with Curry, Olivera, Richardson and Story “for several years.
“Not only are they comfortable and confident in their assets, but we have a vocabulary and a sense of communication,” he noted. “We really enjoy being in the room with each other.
“It’s almost like this area has its own rep company,” Flynn added. “So people come to work with trust, and openness and audacity. They know they can jump in with both feet.”
Roald Dahl’s “Matilda the Musical” runs through July 21 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Wednesdays, June 26, July 10 and July 17. There is no Saturday matinee on June 22. Tickets begin at $42. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.