Wichita boy cast in Broadway’s ‘Matilda’

08/03/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 2:40 PM

Sorry, Music Theatre Wichita: 12-year-old Timothy T.V. Cao regrets that he can’t be in any shows here this summer.

Yes, he was slated to be in “South Pacific” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” after making a splash last summer as young Prince Chulalongkorn in “The King and I.”

But Timothy has a good excuse for having to turn them down at the last minute. He made his Broadway debut instead.

Since May, Timothy has been the swing for two characters – meaning he goes on when somebody can’t perform – in “Matilda: The Musical,” a London import based on Roald Dahl’s brash children’s classic about a precocious girl who overcomes neglectful parents, a tyrannical teacher and other adult-world indignities to chart her own life course.

The show won the Olivier Award in London as best musical and has been a hot ticket at New York’s Shubert Theatre since it won five Tony Awards last year.

“Broadway is pretty much what I thought it would be like,” Timothy says. “But it loses a little of the magic when you get tired. It can be like a job. I’m usually standing by in the theater and watching the show or working on other scripts. It would be easier if I knew I was going on every night.”

The Wichita sixth-grader and his mother, Orelle Cao, were visiting New York three months ago when they saw an ad in Backstage magazine about an open casting call for “Matilda.”

“When we walked in, the role was for a heavy-set Caucasian boy. All the other boys looked the part. Timothy was the only minority,” Orelle Cao recalls. “We didn’t think he had a chance, so he just decided to network and have fun.”

Timothy got a call-back the same day, was offered a contract through Dec. 6, got his Actors Equity card and went right into the show.

“I laughed. I cried. I jumped on the bed when the reality set in. We didn’t even have time to come back home to tell the family,” Orelle Cao says of her husband, Hai, and 14-year-old daughter, Taniece. “We had to find an apartment right away. The first couple of weeks were very expensive. We probably spent $5,000 for hotels and eating out until we could settle into our own place where we could cook. We’re lucky that it’s on the same street and only a few minutes away from the theater.”

By contract, Timothy is guaranteed two shows a week to keep his performance level sharp. But the first week, he went on almost every day because of illness in the cast.

He plays Matilda’s classmate Bruce Bogtrotter, a cake-loving kid who becomes the sympathetic center of attention – and the subject of his own song, “Bruce” – at the end of Act I, when he is punished for stealing a slice of the cold-hearted Miss Trunchbull’s “personal” chocolate cake. He also plays Bruce’s best friend, Tommy, in other performances.

“I get a little tiny solo at the beginning (of the song) and at the end come back to a solo,” he says as Bruce is carted away to “The Chokey,” a claustrophobic cabinet lined with sharp objects where naughty children are locked up. The song he most enjoys, however, comes near the end as Matilda and her classmates celebrate successful rebellion with “Revolting Children.”

Because Timothy is still in school, he says he must keep up with his academic studies six hours a day.

“I can do that at my middle school’s online program while I’m in New York,” he says of Wichita’s Discovery Intermediate School. “We also have tutors at the theater we can ask if we don’t understand something. I like being in New York, because it is interesting and exciting. There is always something going on here. In Kansas, there isn’t that much. But I miss my friends back home.”

As long as Timothy is working in New York, his mother plans to stay beside him, using long-distance technology to keep up her duties as accountant for the family’s heating and air-conditioning business.

“I also have a guardian named Todd that the theater assigned me. He’s one of five that watches all the kids in the cast. He’s taught me to play softball. We play in Central Park,” says Timothy, who also plays soccer and badminton and does gymnastics. This past spring, he took an interest in parkour (free-running). “I haven’t been able to keep up with that, although I do run in the park.”

Timothy says he has already been approached about extending his “Matilda” contract for six months through the first half of 2015. But he is also interested in re-creating his role as Prince Chulalongkorn for a new Broadway revival of “The King and I,” slated to open at Lincoln Center.

“If that happens, I’ll have a big choice to make this fall,” Timothy says.

Timothy says the hardest part of being on Broadway is not seeing his father and older sister back in Wichita.

“My sister is very supportive,” he says. “But I can tell she misses me.”

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