Two young, talented Long Islanders are starring in leading roles on Broadway — Brandon Niederauer, 12, of Dix Hills, is playing Zack in “School of Rock” at the Winter Garden Theatre and Alexandra Vlachos, 10, of Bayport, is playing “Matilda” in the show of the same name at the Shubert Theatre. Here are their stories.
Alexandra Vlachos, 10, of Bayport
Alexandra Vlachos used to have to be bribed with Cheetos to sing in front of others. No such cajoling is needed for the 10-year-old fourth-grader from Bayport to belt out show tunes twice a week as the lead in “Matilda The Musical” on Broadway.
Alexandra has played Matilda at the Shubert Theatre since July, and her contract extends through at least April. She dons Matilda’s gray school uniform; her straight brown hair is teased to look like she’s not well cared for. And although Alexandra’s mom, Ellen, calls her daughter “a happy little spirit,” she has to be serious and even a tad sad in her onstage role, during which she speaks and sings with an English accent.
"Matilda” is the story of a brilliant girl with telekinetic powers who is mistreated by her parents and her school’s headmistress but ultimately triumphs. The musical is based on the children’s book of the same name by British author Roald Dahl.
Alexandra’s favorite number is “Naughty” in Act One. On stage alone, she sings about being “a little bit naughty” as she pours peroxide into her father’s hair tonic bottle, which turns his hair green when he uses it.
“The message of the show is not to think that when someone bullies you it’s OK. You have to stand up for yourself and do something,” says Alexandra, whom friends and family call Ali, sitting on the couch in her family’s den, sipping tea from a Cheshire cat mug.
It is Ali’s singing voice that earned her a place on the Broadway stage, Ali and her parents agree. “The voice is what impressed people in the industry first and foremost with her,” says dad Jim, a shipping broker. “The voice.”
Ali’s dance teacher at Bayport’s American Dance Theatre of Long Island was the first to discover Ali’s vocal talent when Ali was just 2 ½. Ballet teacher Kathy Kairns-Scholz had put an instrumental CD of the music from the Broadway show “Annie” on for the tots to dance to. She was confused when she heard lyrics. “I thought this was an instrumental recording,” she said to herself. Then she saw it was Ali. “I can’t believe that voice was coming from her,” she says she told Ali’s parents.
Like many kids, Ali went on to perform various roles on Long Island, including lead bumblebee in “Pinkalicious” and the teacup Chip in “Beauty and the Beast” through Ovations Dance Academy in Bohemia. She was in “The Nutcracker” at Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts.
When she turned 6, maternal grandparents Ann and Jim O’Connell of East Patchogue gave Ali acting classes at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport as a birthday present. The classes culminated in an acting, singing and dancing showcase during which Ali sang “A Lovely Night” from “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.”
Agents had been invited. “That’s where the whole ‘Matilda’ journey began,” says Ellen, a teacher.
“The casting director put me on her list,” Ali says. But she was still too young and little; every six months she would go for another callback; it took more than two years until she was signed.
“It’s really exciting because she wanted this for a really long time,” sister Marianna, 12, says of Ali’s success.
“I just see her as my little sister and it’s weird seeing her on stage,” says brother Nick, 15. “It’s really amazing.”
Ali alternates the role with three other young performers. The four girls are close, Ali says, and have dubbed themselves Team Tilda. The others are from upstate Buffalo, New Jersey and Ohio. Ali and her family take the train back and forth to performances, and Ali’s elementary school works with her so she can meet her schoolwork requirements.
Ali saves quirky souvenirs from her shows in a small glass jar in her bedroom. Once the wood ruler she is supposed to bang in anger broke during a performance — she saved both halves. She’s got pieces of colorful popped balloons from the opening number “Miracle.” And she’s got a bead from the shiny white scarf in the love story she tells to the librarian character. “So I can remember when I’m older,” Ali says.
Brandon Niederauer, 12, of Dix Hills
When Brandon Niederauer is on stage as Zack in the new Broadway musical “School of Rock,” the hardest part for the 12-year-old from Dix Hills isn’t executing his live guitar solos.
It’s trying not to laugh.
“The play is hilarious — it’s a comedy. It’s so funny,” the seventh-grader says, sitting on a chair with an electric guitar on his lap in the den of his family’s home.
Brandon also must resist making eye contact with famous audience members — which would break what the actors call “the fourth wall.” “Unless Stevie Nicks is in the audience — then I try to find her,” he jokes. Nicks’ number “Edge of Seventeen” is played in the show, and the rocker attended opening night.
Brandon’s biggest temptation came from actors in the “School of Rock” movie — including Joey Gaydos Jr., who played Zack. “He was sitting in the front row center,” Brandon says. “I wanted to look at him and wave.”
“School of Rock” is the story of a washed-up rock and roller turned substitute teacher who drafts his private-school students to compete with him in a Battle of the Bands, unbeknown to their uppity parents and uptight school administrators. Brandon is in the show at the Winter Garden Theatre six days a week through at least May.
At the beginning of each performance, a recorded announcement from show composer Andrew Lloyd Webber informs the audience that he is often asked whether the kids play their own instruments. “The answer is an emphatic, ‘Yes, they do,’ ” he says.
Brandon’s favorite number is “Stick it to the Man.” “We’re jumping so much. ‘Stick it to the Man’ is constant, breathless anger,” he says.
“He’s adorable. You just want to hug him,” says Gail Zerfuss, 74, of Rockville Centre, who had front-row seats recently with her daughter and grandchildren visiting from Hawaii. <
Brandon’s serious guitar journey began with the “School of Rock” movie. “I was about 7 — no, I was 8 — and I was going to Killington, Vermont, to ski, and my Dad decided to put a DVD into the DVD player,” Brandon says. “I was mind-blown by the Zack character who played guitar.”
Brandon’s parents got him a half-size Epiphone electric guitar and lessons from a teacher who taught him funk and blues, and they later signed him up for Rock-n-Roll University in Hauppauge, where kids participate in rock shows performing in bands with other kids.
“One of the teachers had a lot of faith in me,” Brandon says. That was Bill Mignoli, then director, who gave Brandon the nickname “Taz” because he played the guitar like the Tasmanian devil. “He’s a natural talent,” Mignoli says. “He was extremely hungry to learn everything.”
Says Brandon: “I love playing the guitar because I can get all my feelings out without saying a word. Like, you could be angry or you could be happy and those feelings come out.”
Brandon also attended a Catskills summer camp called Roots Rock Revival, run by one of the founders of the Allman Brothers Band. Instructor Sidney Smith invited Brandon to New Orleans to play with professional musicians.
Says Dad Gary, vice president of sales for a textile company: “We went around club to club with a guitar on his back. That was kind of the start where Brandon got a name for himself. The thing musicians say about him is that he’s got an amazing ear. He’ll hear something, listen to the music, and within a half-hour he’s got the song down.”
Where did his talent from? “We don’t know. It’s from the stars,” Gary says. “He’s lucky. He’s got a gift.”
It also helps Brandon that he’s young and has a distinctive appearance, his parents say. Brandon’s mom, Alexandra, who designs and markets cosmetic displays, is from St. Lucia, and Gary has an Italian and German background, so Brandon is multi racial. People say his wild hair looks like Jimi Hendrix, Gary says. Says Alexandra: “He has that cool look.”
More than once, chance advanced Brandon’s guitar career. For instance, when Rock-n-Roll University had a pregame show at CitiField in 2013, an ABC journalist did a story on Brandon that got picked up by “Good Morning America.” Then, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” invited Brandon on, flying him and his parents and his older brother, Dylan, now 15, to Los Angeles. Guitar companies started sending Brandon products to endorse, and he did modeling jobs, one with Lady Gaga.
Last year, when Brandon was in sixth grade at West Hollow Middle School, he played guitar in the pit band for “Little Shop of Horrors.” “I was, like, ‘Oh, that might be fun,’ and it was,” Brandon says. Teacher Phil Iconis was director, and his brother, Joe, who has worked on Broadway, did the musical direction. Joe Iconis sent videos of Brandon to the “School of Rock” casting people, telling them Brandon is “insanely talented” and that he could probably act and sing in addition to playing guitar. “And I said he had great hair as well,” Iconis says.
After several callbacks, Brandon got the phone call. “My mom was like, ‘You got it!’ I was screaming and running around the house,” Brandon says.
The family now rents a studio apartment in Manhattan, and one parent stays there with Brandon when he has to be in the city. Other days he returns to Dix Hills to attend school.
Watching her son onstage is an “out-of-body experience,” Alexandra says. “For me, I come from very humble beginnings. I don’t dream this big."