🎭 Taking Back the Power | “Matilda” @ 5-Star Theatricals

Matilda (5-Star Theatricals)Last Saturday night we saw Matilda (with a book by Dennis Kelly and Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin (FB) based on the novel by Roald Dahl (FB)) at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). I had seen Matilda before at the Ahmanson almost four years ago, and I was at a loss how to describe the show last time. Back then, I had riffed off the bullying theme in the show (perhaps because I had just seen the La Mirada production of Carrie, and was making the connection). But this time that theme didn’t hit me, and so I was stuck. In fact, it wasn’t until near the end of the show we were seeing on Sunday, Ada and the Engine,  by Lauren Gunderson, that it hit me: The two shows were linked with a common theme. In fact, it was a theme common with my third event of the weekend: A Purim Carnival. Purim, after all, tells the story of Queen Esther, who saved her people by speaking up.

What was this common message, you might ask. Simple: It is up to you to change your story. It is a message I highlighted in the lyrics I quoted in my previous post:

If you sit around and let them get on top, you
Won’t change a thing.
Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
You might as well be saying you think that it’s OK.
And that’s not right.
And if it’s not right, you have to put it right.

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me.
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

Matilda overcame the bullying by her parents and by the Trunchbull to take charge of her story, and to change the ending.

Esther overcame the existential threat from Hamen, and changed the ending to save her people.

Ada overcame the legacy and reputation of her father, the overbearance of her mother, and her participation in a field that wasn’t particularly welcoming of women to change the nature of computing (more on that in the next post).

All changed their story. All overcame parents who were bullies. This was the uniting them of the shows over the weekend: Finding your agency. Overcoming your circumstances to write the end to your story, the way your want it to be. Not being powerless; taking the power into your own hands. Using the power of your mind. Being a little naughty along the way.

I just realized I’ve been blathering on without providing you a short synopsis.. After all, you might never have read the novel; you might not have seen the wonderful 1996 movie with Danny DeVito, Rhea Pearlman, and Mara Wilson. Luckily, I can copy what I wrote back in 2015: As opposed to trying to detail it all here, I’ll point you to the Wikipedia page. The “TL;DR” version is: Matilda is a precocious and intelligent little girl born to parents who didn’t want her, and who value stupidity and the messages that TV teaches over reason. Unable to control her (Matilda loves to play pranks on her parents), then enroll her in a school run by an evil headmistress who delights in torturing children. One teacher sees Matilda’s value, and working together they fight the headmistress, and return the school to a place of love and learning. Oh, and Matilda gets a happy ending as well.

Back then, I also noted that in adapting this story to the stage, the authors imbued it with an additional message that was not the novel or the movie — a message that is a commentary on parents today. In the opening scenes, there is a birthday party where every parent is talking about how their child is a precious little miracle and something special. This, of course, creates a contrast with Matilda’s parents who see her not as a miracle and as something not special. The point that is being made is that if everyone is special, then no one is. Special becomes the norm, and the truly special become invisible. The reality must be that we, as parents, must not predefine our children with labels, but must encourage them to grow up and be whatever they are destined to be (and be the best at that).

Today, there was one other additional message that I noted: At the top of Act II, there is a number called “All I Know” (which is known to most folks as “Telly”). In it, Matilda’s father and her brother sing of the joys of getting all your information from television, and making fun of people that believe in facts and getting information by reading. Back then, the number was a novelty number. But that was 2015. It is now 2019 — and Donald Trump is President. All I could think of watching that number was that it described perfectly Donald and Eric Trump.

My one complaint with the show from the first time I saw it, alas, was not resolved as the version was adapted for licensing and regional productions. The Act I ending is still too abrupt. You want Act I to end with a rousing number to get you talking during intermission and wanting to come back. Instead, you get Matilda alone on stage going “But That’s Not Right”. There are a few points where the story seems to drag a bit, or at least move away from the interesting. But overall, the structuring of the story is fun and well-paced, and the songs are more than just entertaining patter. In particular, the songs did a great job of illustrating the wants and motives of the characters; they illustrated and illuminated personalities and drives. This is what the songs in musicals should do.

I also want to note that, unlike the production at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) back in 2015, this production was not a tour. 5-Star Theatricals, formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre, is Broadway in Your Backyard, and they pride themselves in not booking tours. They cast using a mix of local and new-to-local top talent. They pride themselves on finding newcomers (such as Katharine McPhee (FB), who was in CMT’s Annie Get Your Gun) who excel. They do this all in an environment of community outreach and giving back. As an example for this production, they made an effort to honor local teachers, and collect used books for school libraries and children. Next year will be 5-Star/Cabrillo’s 25th Anniversary. They have just announced their season: The Music ManMamma Mia, and Newsies.

Matilda @ 5-Star Photo StripThis production was directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB), the former artistic director of 5-Star, and choreographed by Heather Castillo (FB), who has choreographed a number of productions at 5-Star. Both know how to work well with kids and ensure that they are having fun with the show, and this was evident in how the children and adult performers were having loads of fun with the show. This is one reason why we keep coming back to 5-Star, even with seasons (such as the upcoming season) where we’ve seen the shows before.

The lead position in Matilda is quite demanding, and as a result is dual-cast. The 5-Star Matildas are Lucy Bollier and Olivia Marcum. At our production, we had Lucy, and she did a spectacular job. She had a very strong singing voice, and a wonderfully mischievous and expressive face. She moved well, was suitably playful, and was just fun to watch. If you are up in the balconies, bring your binoculars because you’re going to want to watch her face.

On the other hand, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (FB)’s Miss Trunchbull is best seen at a distance. His performance itself was quite strong and hilarious; it is more that a closeup of his/her makeup was a bit off-putting, with the exaggerated cheekbone and moles. That might have been the intent, but it was a bit distracting through the binoculars. But, again, that doesn’t make the performance bad. Performance-wise, Mongiardo-Cooper is perfect, capturing the overbearing and bullying nature of Trunchbull perfectly, and handing Trunchbull’s few songs well and with strong humor.

Even more humorous moments come from Matilda’s parents: Janna Cardia (FB) as Mrs. Wormwood, and James Larsen (FB) as Mr. Wormwood. Cardia was hilarious during the opening “birth” number, as well as in her dancing number with John Paul Batista (FB) as Rudolfo (who was side-splitting in the background). Larsen — who research shows we saw over 10 years ago in Parade, where I noted the strength of his performance even then — was just great. His comic movements with the hat were just great, and his performance in “All I Know” was very very strong.

Representing the good in the show was Matilda’s teacher, Miss Jenny Honey, played by Katie DeShan (FB). DeShan captured the innocence of the character well, as well as the pathos in the later scenes. She had a strong singing voice and a wonderfully expressive personality on stage. A slight PS: She needs to update her personal website as it still uses Flash, which has security risks and has been deprecated.

Then there are the kids. Cabrillo/5-Star loves kids, and works with them as performers to bring out something special. The youngsters in Matilda are no exception. Strong singers and strong dancers, they had delightful performances, with special acknowledgements for the kids playing Lavender and Bruce. The kids consisted of: Drew Rosen — Nigel; Luke Pryor — Tommy; Olivia Zenetzis — Lavender; Marcello SilvaBruce; Taylor Lynda Thomas (FB) — Amanda; Nico Ridino — Eric; Glory Rose — Alice; and Iyana Hannans — Hortensia.

This brings us to the adults who had the smaller roles, and the members of the adult ensemble (many of whom also played kids). The most notable performance here was Deanna Anthony (★FBFBIG)’s Mrs. Phelps, who brought a wonderfully comic touch to her scenes. She’s been in a number of 5-Star roles and always brings a great humorous character touch to her roles. We also recently saw her singing and dancing her way through Cupcake Theatre’s Mamma Mia — who knows, perhaps she’ll reprise the role for 5-Star in their next season. Also notable (as I noted earlier) was John Paul Batista (FB)’s Rudolfo, who was hilarious in “Loud”.

Anyway, the other adults on stage were: John Paul Batista (FB) — Rudolfo, Ensemble; Ben Carroll (FB) — Escape Artist, Doctor; Monica Ricketts (FB) — Acrobat, Ensemble; Joah Ditto (FB) — Ensemble; Maya Galipeau (FB) — Ensemble; Tyler Luff — Ensemble; Julia Marley (FB) — Ensemble; Jared Cardiel (FB) — Ensemble; Renee Cohen (FB) — Ensemble; Josh Golombek (FB) — Ensemble; Carolyn Lupin (FB) — Ensemble; and Tyler Marie Watkins (FB) — Ensemble. I’ll note that, as a former Rep East subscriber, that we saw Ms. Cohen many years ago in Rep East production.

This brings us to the musicians, under the direction of Jennifer Lin, musical director and conductor. The excellent 5-Star Theatricals orchestra consisted of: Gary Rautenberg (FB) — Flute, Clarinet, Alto Sax; Darryl Tanikawa (FB) — Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor Sax; Chris Maurer (FB)  — Trumpet 1, Flugelhorn, Piccolo Trumpet, Cornet; Michael Fortunato (FB) Trumpet II; June Satton (FB) — Tenor Trombone, Bass Trombone; Brian LaFontaine (FB) — Acoustic & Electric Guitar; Bang Eunn Lee (FB) — CelloChris Kimbler (FB) — Keyboard I;  Jennifer OikawaKeyboard II; Shane Harry (FB) — Double String & Electric Bass; and Alan Peck — Set Drums & Percussion. The orchestra was produced by Tanikawa Artists Management LLC.

Finally, we turn to the production team. Unlike recent productions, where 5-Star had moved from the days of Cabrillo building its own sets to renting sets from other productions, this production has no credits for set rental, meaning that the excellent sets were the sole work of Stephen Gifford (FB) and his construction team. Gifford is a busy man; we saw his sets a few weeks ago for Anna Karenina. I had memories of the Ahmanson tour sets: swings and letter blocks everywhere. Gifford’s unifying motif was books and more books, library bookcases around the stage, with other pieces that came in for the school, Trunchbull’s office, and a large blackboard that made good use of projections. It worked well, and was augmented by properties design of Kevin Williams (FB) — who, in an interesting coincidence, did the properties for 1776 at the Saroya (together with Gifford‘s scenic design), which we saw the same day as Karenina. Also supporting this design was Noelle Raffy (FB)’s costume design, Jessica Mills (FB)’s hair and wig design, and Debby Bryan (FB)’s makeup design (modulo my comments on Miss Trunchbull’s makeup, which I thought was a bit overdone).  Jonathan Burke (FB)’s was reasonable, although the first few numbers had the same problem as the Ahmanson — clearly making out the lyrics that were being sung. Always test the sound quality in the balconies!  Jose Santiago (FB)’s lighting design worked well in establishing time and mood. Other production credits: Alex Choate (FB) — Asst. Props Design; David Elzer/Demand PR — Publicity; Fresh Interactive (FB) — Marketing; Tal Fox (FB)— Assoc Producer; Jack Allaway (FB) — Technical Director; Talia Krispel (FB) — Production Stage Manager; Patrick Cassidy (FB)— Artistic Director. The original Broadway production was directed by Matthew Warchus and choreographed by Peter Darling.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda – The Musical has one more weekend at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). Overall, I thought it was a very strong production with good performances and a great message. It is well worth seeing; you’ll enjoy it. Tickets are available through the 5-Star Theatrical’s website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. The last performance of Matilda is March 31, 2019.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The day after Matilda, we saw Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage). March was to conclude with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that date had to chance so that we could attend the wedding of our daughter’s best friend, who is a wonderful young woman.

April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. During the week, we are back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend brings the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (FB). The third weekend of April will bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The fourth weekend of April is open, although we may see Chris McBride’s Big Band at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and I may book a show for myself. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings  Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring! June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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