By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Gabby Pizzolo has learned a lot since she made her Broadway debut in December.
She has become a professional at taking criticism in stride and keeping in touch with friends who are 150 miles away. She has also picked the neat skill of moving stuff around using her mind.
“I learn from the actors and the crew members and the directors,” Gabby said. At 11 years old, she sits with royal posture, speaks more precisely than most English teachers, and demonstrates what her dance teacher likes to call “laser focus.”
In short, the precocious Gabby is the perfect fit to play the title role in “Matilda the Musical,” the stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s story.
For those unfamiliar, the plot of “Matilda” follows a bookish little girl who gets the upper hand on her nasty parents and cruel schoolmaster when she discovers she has telekinetic power. Always prone to mischief against the unjust characters in her life (like her sleazy car salesman father, whose hat she super-glues to his head) she uses her newly discovered magical power to upend the unfairness around her.
Gabby shares the role with three other young actresses, each taking on two shows per week. Her upbeat, humble disposition fits the character, but isn’t exactly what one might imagine for a child star on Broadway.
The word “amazing” comes every other sentence when Gabby talks about her experience. “I’m just a lucky kid who happened to get a part,” she said.
Lucky is one way to put it. After Gabby first auditioned for “Matilda the Musical” — her first-ever Broadway audition — she was called back a total of 20 times. Each time, she would learn a part of the script, try out a song, or participate in a workshop, all while being scrutinized by the show’s casting decision makers.
“We had no clue you could be called back twenty times,” said Natalie Pizzolo, Gabby’s mom. “Once we went to the first one, I felt like it would be a bad example not to see it through.”
She had no idea what they were getting themselves into, she said. Setting that good example has come at no small cost to the Pizzolo family.
Gabby and her mom spend six days each week in New York City, where they stay with family. Pizzolo, a certified teacher, helps her daughter complete her schoolwork during the academic year, along with tutors provided by the performance company. They even had to get a new, smaller car: The minivan Pizzolo had been driving guzzled gas and cost too much to park.
When Gabby and her mom aren’t in New York, they’re home in the Old Niskayuna neighborhood with her father, Dave, and her sister, Gillian, who’s 8. She graduated from Craig Elementary School in June.
Broadway life can be uncomfortably secretive at times. Some things are to be expected: Gabby isn’t allowed to tell anyone how her telekinesis works, for example. And during the two months when the Pizzolos were attending myriad callbacks, from October to December last year, they were sworn to secrecy about the reason for all their trips.
“I don’t even want to tell you what people thought,” Pizzolo said.
“It’s overwhelming,” she added.
Pizzolo, who was every bit as new to theater as her daughter, said support has come from the entire theater community — and not just in the big city.
Gabby’s dance teacher, Michelle Pigliavento, just happens to be an expert. Her father, Orlando Pigliavento, owns the Orlando School of Dance in Schenectady, which was also the family’s home while Michelle and her sister were growing up. Her career spanned seven Broadway shows before she returned home to teach.
“She’s already a professional at this age,” Pigliavento said of her multitalented student. “We couldn’t be prouder of her, for a myriad of reasons.”
But, Pigliavento said, Gabby has been spared the toughest part of Broadway life so far: rejection. Twenty callbacks are a lot tougher to stomach if there’s no title role at the end of the rainbow. Luckily, protections are in place to make sure her experience stays positive.
Partly to protect the girls who play Matilda from the exhaustion of stage life, and partly to make sure the actresses are always small enough to be convincing, each girl’s contract lasts less than a year. Gabby will rejoin her classmates for most of sixth grade at Van Antwerp Middle School.
“It’s something they should do for a short period,” her mother said. “It’s not a lifestyle.” The Matildas are also prohibited from leaving the theater through the stage door or signing autographs. It helps keep a little normalcy in their lives.
One might expect an 11-year-old who has been enjoying the spotlight to return to middle school kicking and screaming. Not Gabby.
“I’m so happy to go back and see all my friends,” she said. “School was always really fun for me.”
But, she says, she’ll always hold on to the memory of how it felt like to step into the spotlight at the 1,460-seat Shubert theater on her opening night.
“Everybody gets a bit of the jitters,” she said. “I just remember walking on stage, and everything was forgotten.
“I’ll never forget that feeling of, ‘Wow,’ ” she continued. “It’s just breathtaking.”