"Never Do Anything By Halves if You Want to Get Away with It!"
“Matilda” is a stage musical based on Roald Dahl’s disquieting 1988 children’s novel adapted by Dennis Kelly, with delicious music and lyrics by Aussie musician/comedian Tim Minchin, and directed for the stage at JD Theatricals @ the Attic Community Theatre by Susan Gerardi.
Playing at the Attic through December 22nd, the musical's narrative centers on Matilda (Ava Qsar alternating with Leila Woodward), a precocious 5-year-old girl with the gift of telekinesis and psychometry, who loves reading, overcomes obstacles caused by her family and school, and helps her teacher to reclaim her life.
While the ingenious adaptation is a testament to childhood cleverness, it also offers a dark, wickedly funny portrait of adult cruelty and barbarism, heightening Dahl's awareness of both the mean-spirited and the miraculous. And, in the figure of headmistress Miss Trunchbull, it creates one of the greatest monsters of modern fiction.
Matilda is a brilliantly gifted child detested equally by her dodgy, vacuous car-dealer father and her ballroom-dancing obsessed mother. And, at school, she falls prey to the evil machinations of the diabolical, hellish matron to whom all children are considered “maggots.”
But, in Kelly's version, Matilda is not just a voracious reader and opponent of injustice, she is also a prophetic storyteller, encouraged by librarian Mrs. Phelps (Laura Miller), who magically prefigures the plight of her one schoolroom champion — the aptly named Miss Honey (the golden-voiced Kristy Thompson). In her continuing stories at the library, characters emulating important people to her seem to come to life and act out their lives and fate in imagination. The Escapologist (Sean Farrell) and the Acrobat (Allayana Slate) and Matilda, all speaking in unison, her words directing the action, are recurring scenes in the show.
Some have considered “Matilda,” winner of 5 Tony Awards, to be the best British musical since “Billy Elliot,” with its smashing score, its showcase of splendidly witty, instantly hummable songs, dazzling choreography, and a cast of impossibly cute and delightful children. And, here, icing on the cake, is the fantastic star turn from Susan Lopez as the revolting sadist of a pedagogue, Miss Trunchbull.
Director Gerardi brings the show to life with an unstoppable, buzzing vitality that proves irresistible, and Choreographer Katie Walsh is also every bit as inventive, designing school-kid rebellions, sadistic gym routines and perfectly synchronized ensemble dances with panache. With talent to the brim, this heart-warming group of child actors, mostly aged from eight to eleven, steal the show with performances that stay just on the right side of adorable.
Ms. Lopez, as our hulking antihero, comes on like Richard III in drag as the terrible Trunchbull — viragoish, huge-busted, and exuding malignity and cold-blooded delight from every pore, in a role usually played by a male. Engulfing the child-hating, steroid-popping, former Olympic hammer-throwing champion completely, Ms. Lopez manages to be simultaneously funny and completely terrifying at the same time: e.g., the scene in which she forces a lusty young student named Bruce (Libby Rue) with a proclivity to chocolate to eat an enormous chocolate cake as punishment is a masterpiece of black comedy.
Scene-stealers Katrina Murray and Jeremy Krasovic make a thrillingly grotesque double-act as Matilda’s boorish, selfish and morally bankrupt parents, the Wormwoods, who regard reading as a perversion, and treat their brilliant daughter with breathtaking cruelty. In fact, Mr. Wormwood continually refers to her as his son.
Their bang-on target depiction of our dumbed-down TV-addicted culture is quite revealing in many ways. And no one represents it better than their doofus couch potato son, Michael, who is the Wormwood’s love-joy, although a bit slow upstairs. Forbes Painter delivers the role splendidly with minimal dialogue in a lampoonish send-up of an adolescent addicted to the boob tube. (This was written, by the way, before there were GameStops.)
The show opens with “Miracle,”a sly number about how supremely, almost superhumanly gifted most parents think their kids are. Minchen’s lyrics show a razor-sharp wit that's a perfect match for the subversive and weird source material. He shows off that wit in other tunes like “Loud,” Mrs. Wormwood's dancing ode to the virtues of volume over smarts, with dance partner, Rudolpho (Archer Alstaetter), who brings a sexy sizzle salsa to the number in a most side-splitting way.
Minchen’s repertoire of music and lyrics in “Matilda” are almost impossible to beat. The “School Song,” an elegantly clever A to Z of the horrors that await children in Trunchbull's school, is performed by the whole company in great style. A lecture by the disciplinarian on the importance of following rules culminates with “The Hammer.” “The Chokey Chant,” describes the iron-maiden-like torture chamber the Trunchbull uses for cruel and unusual punishment. And in the striking number “Quiet,” Matilda completely grasps the audience in the palm of her hand with a remarkably crisp singing voice. Finally, strong voices and some particularly high-energy dance moves underscore the rousing closing number, “Revolting Children.”
Roald Dahl's Matilda may be 30-plus years old now, but the story seems particularly suited for the present, with its themes of girl power, fighting back against bullies, and the triumph of substance, intellect and decency over brash vapidity. But like all Dahl stories, there's an element of fantastic here and a definite underlying dark streak — and a lurking sense that being a kid is tough in an often capricious world run by adults.
But thanks to its feel-good messages, this big, energetic production, fostered by a lovely turn from its two young rotating leads, Ms. Qsar and Ms. Woodward, is just the kind of charmer Southern California needs this holiday season.
It is a bulletproof musical, with memorable themes, powerful lyrics, requiring great vocal dexterity from its cast, who all deliver profusely. It’s amazing to think that, during the show's creation, Matilda was going to be the only character played by a child actor (in fact, at one point she was going to be a puppet). It is true, the role is incredibly challenging. Matilda has some massive monologues, all the while singing, dancing and acting. That’s a big ask for a young performer to carry a show such as this, but it’s in coping with all that which helps us fall in love with the character.
In fact, the entire child cast is astonishing; every eyeline, gesture, and word is conveyed with impeccable precision. The breakout dances exploding with angry defiance in this tenacious and engaging core of young performers is doubtlessly the key to the show’s success. The young cast rotates throughout the run, but in either of their performances, the result is inspiring, palpably empowering euphoria, both for children in the audience and the young-at-heart alike.
The cast of school kids includes Leilani Easter and Samantha Divis as Lavendar; Angelina Pendleton-Mendez and Tiffany Easter as Hortensia; Adeline Poon and Ava Gray as Amanda; Olivia Duffen and Tegan Leong as Alice; Andrew Denton and Eliana Gregg as Eric; Chase Johnson as Nigel; Samantha Maerov and Shane Skiles as Tommy; Eliana Gregg, Kassidy Moll, Leilani Easter, Sara Krasovic and Sophia Johnson make up the ensemble kids.
Most actors have multiple roles in the show. Randy Calcetas plays the Doctor; Jennifer Denton is the Nurse; Myra Cruise and Rayzeen Skiles alternate as the other Nurse, and the Entertainer is Coleman McClelland. The parents are made up of ensemble double roles primarily, and include Allayana Slate, Cheyenne Brown, David Lopez (also playing Sergei), Evan Ondodera, Hannah Ridge, Maddy Ciulla, Sean Farrell and Shannon Farrell. The Dancers in “Loud” are Cheyenne Brown, Evan Ondodera, Hannah Ridge and Sean Farrell. Henchmen are Maddy Ciulla, Coleman McClelland, Jennifer Denton, Myra Cruz, Evan Ondodera and Gordon Buckley (also playing the Cook, alternating with Jennifer Denton.
The "Big Kid" Ensemble comprises Cheyenne Brown, Evan Ondodera, Maddy Ciulla, Randy Calcetas, Sean Farrell, Tiffany Easter, Coleman McClelland, Hannah Ridge, Mayra Cruz, Rayzee Skiles, Shannon Farrell, David Lopez, Jennifer Denton, Olivia Duffen, Samantha Divis and Tegan Leong.
Direction, Costumes and Props (also by Brandie Johnson) are by Susan Gerardi; Nicole Gerardi serves as Assistant Director, Stage Manager, Lighting Design (also by Jim Huffman), Mics and Spots (also by Max Espino); Scenic Design is by Jim Huffman; Music Director is David Diiorio; Dance Captain is Cheyenne Brown; Tech/Special Effects is by John Espino.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda,” child genius, friend, and champion for justice, is now playing through December 22nd at Attic Community Theatre, Santa Ana. Tickets may be purchased online at www.ocact.com.
The Show Report
Photography: Brenda Diaz