Brothers Zachary and Matthew Uzarraga are heating up Chicago-area stages
Hedy Weiss Sun-Times Theater Critic November 13, 2013 6:10PM
Zachary Uzarraga (left), 8, and his brother Matthew, 10. Both are actors in Chicago-area stage musical productions.
‘Miss Saigon,’ Through Nov. 24, Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. $36.90-$49.90. (630) 896-6666; ParamountAurora.com.
Updated: November 14, 2013 8:05AM
This is the tale of two brothers — Zachary Uzarraga, 8, and Matthew Uzarraga, 10 — both of whom possess pure, unadulterated theater magic.
Matthew first caught my eye several years ago when he made his professional stage debut in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre. He then proved wholly captivating as one of the tiny urchins who nailed ferociously difficult choreography with unabashed delight in Rachel Rockwell’s Drury Lane Oakbrook production of “Oliver!,” and spent last summer as Young Shrek and Baby Bear in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Shrek the Musical.”
Now, tiny Zachary is making his professional debut in the crucial role of Tam, the child born to a Vietnamese mother and American G.I. in the stunning Paramount revival of “Miss Saigon.” His more experienced older brother is proudly serving as understudy and “wrangler.”
Watch Zachary’s wonderfully expressive face — or better yet, the way he races around the stage in a circle before jumping intothe arms of his mother, played by Shawna Haeji Shin — and your heart soars even as it breaks.
“Both boys have such natural grace and discipline,” said Jim Corti, director of “Miss Saigon.” “They are so poised, so responsive, so quick in their comprehension of emotional situations. They are really the best scene partners you could ever want in the way they respond so naturally to every look you give them.”
Asked what he likes best about the theater, Matthew said: “Meeting all the people and making new friends,” a sentiment his brother quickly echoed.
As for the advice he gave brother Zachary for “Miss Saigon”: “I told him about where to look when he was not looking at the audience.”
Zachary admitted “the hardest part of playing Tam is trying not to smile during the serious parts because I am so happy to be on stage. But I really think about this before going on.”
“One of the best things about all this is that it’s a family effort,” said Corti. “The boys have two doting parents — firm, but loving and nurturing — who cart them around.”
The Uzarragas (of Filipino heritage), live in far west suburban Sugar Grove. The boys’ dad is a medical technician. Their mom oversees their home schooling while teaching herself about “the business” of theater via the Internet.
“Both boys went to public schools at the start,” said their mom, Estrellita. “But at times I think they were a little bored. And Zachary has some serious food allergies that made it difficult. Now they are both involved in the theater, so this way we can schedule school work, naps and sleeping.”
How did their acting passion begin?
“I am not at all a stage mother,” said Estrellita, a petite beauty who grew up in Orlando, Fla., the child of parents who wanted her to follow their medical careers. “I did some community theater, but my parents didn’t want that for my future, so I was sent to a Christian college in Michigan where I had a choral music scholarship. Eventually I rebelled by studying graphic arts.”
For Matthew it all began in first grade.
“He did a school play, and brought the house down,” his mom recalled. “Afterward his teacher took me aside and said: ‘You saw him playing two roles because another child got sick and Matthew stepped right in and knew every line and all the blocking’. After that, he joined a local summer arts program and the two of us played roles in “The Music Man.” Then I heard about ‘Joseph’ being done at the Paramount and I emailed them about an open casting call.”
“Matthew was cast, and Zachary, who was still too young, came to every rehearsal and said, ‘I want to do that, too’.”
Neither boy has had any formal dance training, but after they began doing Jackie Chan-like flips around the house their mom enrolled them in tumbling classes. They were immediately put into the advanced level.
Asked how much of the “Miss Saigon” story she explained to her kids, Estrellita said: “I’m always very open in talking to them about people’s motivations, how their hearts work, and what we can learn from that.”
What’s next for the boys?
“At the moment we’re just playing it by ear,” said Estrellita. “They’d both like to audition for ‘Les Mis’ at Drury Lane, and I believe ‘The King and I’ is coming to the Marriott next fall.”
The boys have their own ideas.
“I’d like to play one of the children in ‘Matilda the Musical,’ because I saw some of it on TV,” said Matthew. Zachary wants “to have a part in ‘Oliver!’ because my brother said it was so much fun to do.”