Stage Review - Matilda the Musical
Date Reviewed: Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Reviewed By: Greg Heilman
Matilda the Musical is one of the latest in a long line of musicals or plays that have been adapted from a film. The film, released in 1996, itself based on the book by Roald Dahl, is the story of Matilda Wormwood, a special girl born into less than special circumstances. Her parents, Harry and Zinnia Wormwood, have made it very clear that they are uninterested in having one child, much less adding another to the pack when Matilda comes along. They are aghast when Matilda begins to show an interest in books, and learning. Harry and Zinnia are truly unsavory characters who are more than happy to dispatch their young daughter to school, run by the equally, if not more, unsavory Agatha Trunchbull, a former Olympic Hammer Throw competitor. Matilda's only solace is her teacher, Miss Honey, who shares her interest in learning, and takes a special shine to Matilda. As the story progresses, we learn that Matilda is even more special than we originally suspected, but is held back at every turn, by Trunchbull and her parents. Does Matilda find the love of a family that she's been yearning for? Do the unsavories get their comeuppance? Well, I'm not going to spoil that here. But if you want to find out for yourself, one option you have is to head over to Bremerton beginning this Friday night to see CSTOCK's performance of Matilda the Musical.
Matilda the Musical opened on Broadway in 2013, Other than it being a musical, with the book by Dennis Kelly and songs by Tim Minchin, it largely keeps to the story depicted in the film, with a few minor changes, mostly in some of the details. When it was presented to director Palmer Scheutzow by CSTOCK back in 2020, she was hesitant to take it on. Having seen the touring production, she felt that the dark, special effects driven show seemed too complicated to bring to the regional stage, especially as CSTOCK, which was (and is) in between physical theatre homes, and which doesn't have the infrastructure to support something like what was presented on the larger stage. But Palmer fell in love with the story and the more she read it, the more she was convinced that she should move forward with it. Everything was lined up for the show to premiere in Spring, 2020, but then…..well, we all know what happened. So, here we are two years later, and Matilda the Musical is again on CSTOCK’s calendar. A lot has changed in the last two years. CSTOCK is now producing shows at the Kitsap Golf and Country Club in Bremerton. Many of the original cast members couldn't commit to the show this year, and Covid has impacted the show's production in almost every aspect.
The CSTOCK version of Matilda is a simpler version than the Broadway or touring version, having eliminated many of the special effects, along with the British accents of its characters. It's also a lighter version. Palmer described to me how she felt that with dark source material, a brighter show, along with the elimination of a lot of the "bells and whistles" would give the show more heart, something she found lacking in the touring version that she saw. Palmer has created a show that is more intimate and one that fits well within the smaller footprint of CSTOCK’s current venue. Anything more would have been too much. Schedules being what they are, I was only able to attend the final dress rehearsal for the show, so it was a "working" performance. There were some blocking, dialogue, and technology hiccups, but those are expected. That's why rehearsals exist. If the rehearsal had gone smoothly, I'd probably be more concerned about the company’s readiness for opening night, but I’m not. Given how this rehearsal went, I'm confident that Matilda the Musical will be more than ready for its opening.
Covid has created challenges for casts and crews across the country. Shows are being cancelled, or even put on hiatus, and productions have had to rely heavily on understudies and swings to fill in. Palmer has had to deal with many of these same speed-bumps as the production has progressed through rehearsals and gets ready for opening night. All of the leads were out at one point or another, with Jane Frandsen (Matilda) coming back Tuesday and Ann Bonner (Agatha Trunchbull) back for final dress. Katie Olsen (Miss Honey) will be back for opening night, but wasn't available for the performance I saw. The in and out of cast members presented a number of challenges for the entire company, having to rehearse with and without the primary actors in their roles. Enter "super swing", Marin Snelson. She's had to step in and play each of these roles over the past few weeks and played Miss Honey during last night's final dress. It really is true that, especially during the pandemic, swings and understudies are the glue that holds these productions together, and CSTOCK's Matilda the Musical is no exception. Marin performed very well filling in for Katie during final dress, better than would be expected, but it will be nice to have the full cast available for opening night. If Wednesday's performance was any indication, opening night, with all of the pieces in place, should be as if the cast hadn't missed a step at all. I was very impressed with how everyone gelled during the performance, especially considering the Covid revolving door.
The majority of the cast for Matilda is made up of children or teenagers. Jane Frandsen plays Matilda wonderfully, with a combination of hope and frustration that is so important in this character, especially in her musical numbers, during which she accentuated her emotions wonderfully through her voice. Matilda's best friend Lavender, played by Bella McKinley, is featured along with Ashley Dylan, who plays Bruce Bogtrotter, and are both wonderful in their supporting roles. As a result of the current Covid situation, Palmer made the hard decision to have the actors perform in masks. According to her, it's not apparent whether that will be in place for the entire run of the show, but it will be to start, and it was for this performance. At times, the masks made it difficult to hear some of the dialogue, especially when the actors were faced away from the audience, and you lose a bit not being able to see the entire faces of the actors when they're performing. That said, the adjustments that this cast has made, given the circumstances is amazing. Their ability to project through their masks and accentuate their acting through only their eyes was accomplished very well. The remainder of the schoolchildren make up the largest part of the ensemble in Matilda. They are at their best when on stage together, deploying consistent harmonies from Amy Knickerbocker's music direction and Grace Camp's choreography. The harmonies were on point throughout the performance, a testament to the group’s direction and preparation.
Of the adult performances, there are a number of highlights. Eric Richardson's humor as Rudolpho (Mrs. Wormwood’s dance instructor/partner) was matched equally by the emotion from his Escapologist. The scenes he shared with Grace Camp in her role as the acrobat were exceptionally heartfelt and enjoyable, while his scenes with Melissa Dylan (Mrs. Wormwood) were maybe the funniest of the show. Speaking of the Wormwoods, Melissa, along with David Whitemarsh, played Matilda's parents in a truly unsavory way. Even more unsavory, of course is Agatha Trunchbull, played by Ann Bonner, costumed up to look like the Olympic Hammer Thrower, with the attitude to boot. All were enjoyable and they captured the spirit of their characters, but if I came away wanting anything more from the adult performances, it would have been a little more anger directed toward Matilda. While the Wormwoods and Trunchbull came across as unlikeable, which they are, I wanted to hate them just a little bit more.
There is a lot that goes into putting a show like Matilda the Musical together in the best of times. Consider that all cast and crew are volunteers, all with school or jobs, and all with other responsibilities. Add to that the memorization of blocking, dialogue, music, and choreography, it's a lot. Further, throw in a two year delay, a global pandemic, and a theatre without a permanent home, and it's a downright miracle that something like this can come off successfully. But Palmer Scheutzow, Amy Knickerbocker, Grace Camp, and the entire cast and crew of CSTOCK's production of Matilda the Musical has done just that. This show is an example of what can happen when a group of determined folks with a love of theatre set their minds to something, and it's the beauty of local theatre and a local theatre community. Matilda the Musical is an enjoyable, heartfelt, fun evening of theatre, and if you're like me, you'll probably be humming, if not singing, songs from the show well into the day after you've seen it.
Matilda the Musical opens Friday, January 14 at the Kitsap Golf and Country Club, and runs through Sunday, January 30. Shows are Fridays at 7pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 6:30pm, and Sundays at 5pm. For more information and tickets, visit https://www.cstock.org/. Note that all attendees must wear a mask.