"...An Exhilarating Tale of Empowerment!"
Children of the World, Unite! The children’s revolution has arrived on these shores, and it is even more glorious than we were promised. Rush now, stormers of culture, to the La Mirada Theater, and join the insurrection against tyranny, illiteracy, unjust punishment and impoverished imaginations, led by a prodigiously gifted 5-year old girl whose head is too small for her brains. Diminutive or not — mess with this little girl at your own peril!
"Matilda, The Musical," the London import that opened October 26th at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment, is both the most satisfying and the most contumacious musical ever to come out of Britain, where it was nurtured into life nine years ago by the Royal Shakespeare Company, shuttered to the West End the following year, then released to the world on Broadway in 2013.
Inspired by a book from Roald Dahl, it was first turned into a movie in 1996, starring Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and Pam Ferris. And in its melding of song, dance and story in the productions following, it has become as beloved and consummate as “Oklahoma!” or “Annie.”
With original songs by Tim Minchin (additional music by Chris Nightingale) and adaptation for the stage by Dennis Kelly, Minchin and Kelly constantly poke us where it hurts, drawing a line from the fears and injustice of childhood to the inevitable failings and disappointments of growing up.
Our heroine, Matilda (played by the brilliant Audrey Cymone in her McCoy Rigby Entertainment debut; “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Annie”), is a precocious, remarkably literate first grader who is sadly born into a family of uncouth boors that make Harry Potter’s Dursley relatives look like Rhodes Scholars.
Miss Cymone gives a strong performance imbued with fire and independence, accompanied, seemingly, by the world’s most acutely trained cast of child actors, all with believable British accents firmly in place, performing tightly constructed, perfectly choreographed numbers like the opener, “Miracle,” a helicopter parent song that bridged Dahl’s 1988 text to the modern day.
Interestingly, this is the same Dahl who subjected children to abuse and torment in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” but here, the children are the good guys. The darkness of the show’s themes notwithstanding, Director Michael Matthews and his production team have embraced the freewheeling, free-spirited tone with avidity. The result is an exhilarating tale of empowerment, as told from the perspective of a young girl with extraordinary stage presence and an astonishing singing voice. Throughout the show, Miss Cymone generates a compellingly thoughtful stillness with a natural center of gravity, giving the piece an emotional depth beyond her years.
Brilliantly costumed by Travis M. Grant, lighted by Steven Young, with sound design by Josh Bessom, and hair/wig/makeup design by Katie McCoy, “Matilda” captures the particular dread that runs like an icy rivulet through even the happiest childhood. You know what I mean: the nagging awareness of the monster under the bed, the bully on the bus, the first day of school, and the teacher who lurks there to make your life a living hell on earth.
Realizing that “nobody else is gonna put it right for me / Nobody but me is gonna change my story,” she is determined to transform her lot in life. School, however, is sometimes a child’s worst nightmare come to life, and in this case, ruled with an iron fist by Miss Trunchbull who disciplines children by locking them in a cupboard called the “Chokey” (“The Chokey Chant”), that resembles a dreaded iron maiden torture device full of nails and broken glass. “I shall consign you to the seventh circle of hell, child — you shall be destroyed.”
Mr. Minchin’s score is infused throughout with a Gothic strain, which sometimes has even a trace of “Phantom” organ chords. Minchin has also written some lyrically expressive charmers for Matilda and Miss Honey (Nicole Santiago), that wrench the heart and identify them as soulmates in loneliness (“Pathetic,” “This Little Girl,” “Quiet,” “My House”).
As originally told by Dahl’s children’s book, “Matilda,” the story begins before Matilda is even born. Her incredibly stupid mother, Mrs. Wormwood (a Technicolor study in middle-class vulgarity - Erica Hanrahan, “Cabaret,” “Sweeney Todd”), is a tacky ballroom dancing fanatic who dials down her marital values in the hilarious rumba-number, "Loud," partnered by tight-trousered Rudolpho (Danil Chernyy, in a funny, florid Latinate number that could easily fit into “Dancing With The Stars.”) Her credo: “Looks, not books.”
Then there’s Matilda’s equally incredibly stupid father, the unscrupulous used-car salesman Mr. Wormwood ( the fascinating Josh Adamson, “Big Fish,” “The Producers,” who is an expert at appearing totally clueless). When looking at the infant Matilda for the first time, he can’t seem to find her “thingy” so can’t figure out what sex she is. He even continues to call her “son” and “boy” throughout the show. “I’m a girl!” Matilda reminds her toad of a father.
Sadly, the printed word is regarded in the Wormwood household as a big waste of time. And it drives Mom and Dad bonkers that their first-grader can’t take her nose out of Dickens or Dostoyevsky. Little do they know that in books lies Matilda’s salvation, as she reveals in her first solo, “Naughty,” a song with a mantra about rewriting your own story.
When we first see Stephen Gifford’s set, it is an airy wonderland of large letter-bearing tiles and bookcases. It suggests the endless supply from which prodigy Matilda can draw to make her stories. Stories, useful for translating the unhappiness of dull daily life into exotic, dramatic fantasies, as she eloquently does to enrapture a librarian, engagingly played by Constance Jewell Lopez. Stories about the tragic love affair and marriage of an acrobat (Veronica Gutierrez, also the Dance Captain) and an escapologist (Brandon Keith Rogers).
Or, as simply fabrications to save the skins of school friends. Or best of all, stories to connect with the hidden life and thoughts of a kindred spirit like Ms. Santiago’s Miss Honey, the gentle young schoolteacher who becomes Matilda’s mentor.
But Miss Honey is under the meaty thumb of “the Trunchbull,” the headmistress of the school, whose motto is “children are maggots.” As played by Michael A. Shepperd, in an awe-inspiring mix of bulldog and camp that seems to break the mold of cross-dressing codebooks, Miss Trunchbull has the look of a cartoonish, hated authority figure come to life, seeking revenge for the pure joy of it. Broad of shoulders and as tall as a house, “the Trunchbull” stalks the halls of her establishment like a steroid-pumped bird of prey. (Mr. Shepperd has managed to wittily feminize a character whom Dahl portrayed as almost doggedly masculine.)
In a mind-blowing, “hammer it home” number performed by Mr. Shepperd, simply called, “The Hammer,” we see the darkest interiors of the Trunchbull’s mind in which she imagines a world without children, and then again in a second act favorite called, “The Smell of Rebellion.” It begins normally enough and then at some point turns into a “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”-like aberration, vaulting into true wacked out weirdness, complete with references to a dwarf and a multi-colored light show.
But Miss Trunchbull is no shrieking gargoyle. This rule-and-order-obsessed figure in prison matron-style drag talks softly and precisely and wriggles her fingers with the artistic menace of a demented coroner preparing to perform an autopsy. Her hatred of children is so great she denies ever having been a child herself.
Depicted as a "gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightens the life out of pupils and teachers alike,” the Olympic hammer-throwing Trunchbull is notorious for her brutal and wildly idiosyncratic indoctrinations. Trivial misdeeds, such as simply wearing pigtails, incur punishments up to potentially-fatal discipline, like throwing children out the window.
Unfortunately, she is also the maternal aunt to Matilda's sweet-natured primary school teacher, Miss Honey, although it's strongly implied that the Trunchbull murdered Miss Honey’s father to become the legal owner of the Honey estate. Even Miss Honey admits she became her slave growing up, doing the chores and odd jobs, with the Trunch confiscating her meager salary as well.
The chorus of children – triple-threats all in singing, dancing and acting – make you feel the future of musicals is in expert hands. As for the nine child performers, who are supplemented at times with adults portraying children, they occupy most convincingly that anxious state of siege we call childhood. This is evident even in their dancing, which ranges from a torturous phys-ed sequence that ties a knot in your stomach to a double-meaning anthem of liberation, “Revolting Children,” which Kate Dunn has geniusly choreographed with a wink to Bill T. Jones's work (in my opinion) on "Spring Awakening." The production's invaluable stage manager is Marcedes L. Clanton, with assistance by Katherine Barrett, and the daunting musical director is Jennifer Lin.
Carli C. Duda is Understudy to Matilda. Amanda is Sloane Adams, Erica is played by Raegan Nichole Larson, Lavender is portrayed by Adrienne Amanda Morrow, Hortensia is Cienna Cheri Olsen, Nigel is Daniel Peters, Tommy is Jared Xander E. Silva, Bruce is Aaron Tapia, and Alice is Erin Tardibuono. The adult Ensemble includes Carly Haig, Angeline Mirenda, Jay Robinson and Liz B. Williams. Mrs. Phelps is played by Constance Jewell Lopez, the Party Entertainer/Sergei is Juan Guillen, Rees James played the Doctor who delivered Matilda.
The La Mirada Theatre and McCoy Rigby Entertainment has struck gold with this wildly entertaining musical makeover of Roald Dahl's “Matilda,” and Director Matthews’ wondrously well-drilled production finds just the right balance between gleeful grotesque humor and heart-warming poignancy. The show ends in a triumphant celebration of good over evil, kindness over brutality, and intelligence over stupidity.
For Ticket and Performance information, please go to www.lamiradatheatre.com Continuing through November 17th, performances are set for Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm; Sundays at 2pm. Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission. Rated G. Children under 3 not admitted. Audience Talk-Back sessions with the cast will be Wednesdays, Oct. 30 and Nov. 13. This show is highly recommended!
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Jason Niedle