By Bill Hirschman
Earlier in Matilda The Musical, adult actors had already supplemented the youngsters playing students in the chorus. But there was a moment during the peppy earworm tune “When I Grow Up” when adults in children’s private school uniforms suddenly take the place of kids flying on swings on their bellies.
It was that moment in this Area Stage Company production when it became clear that Matilda is not really a children’s musical, although children will have a fine time when they are not storing up nightmarish images for future midnights.
Matilda’s witty lyrics, satirical jibes and a multi-level script with psychological overtones are really aimed at those parents bringing their children. The youngsters certainly will revel in the bouncy score, cartoonish characters and exuberant production numbers of peers riotously rebelling against crushing adult authority, venality and cupidity.
But the show nominated for a raft of Tony and Olivier Awards pungently if humorously explores the darkness and the resilience of childhood as seen from the narrative viewpoint – albeit subtly — of the adult artists creating this work. Further, adult audiences’ ability to recognize what’s occurring on stage underscores how the child remains inside adults – both the joy and the scars.
Thanks to the imaginative energetic vision of jack-of-all-trades director Giancarlo Rodaz, a strong supporting cast and a phenomenal youngster in the title role, the Area Stage production is in some ways more accessible, more comprehensible and therefore more effective than the Broadway and tour editions.
Matilda is based on a 1988 novel by Roald Dahl, the British writer of dark and intentionally subversive children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and macabre short stories for adults. Following a non-musical film version, a script was penned by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Australian actor-musician-comedian Tim Minchin. After a bow in Stratford in 2010, it later became a hit in London and New York invested with ingenious production values.
The plot focuses on Matilda Wormwood, a preternaturally precocious 5-year-old girl with a deep love of reading and an emerging bent for telekinesis. She is discouraged and even ignored by shallow parents who are emotionally abusive — a con man whose entire value system is forged by television, and a bottle-blonde mom more interested in tango contests than parenting. Mom tells her, “It’s not normal for a girl to be thinking” and when Matilda asks if she wants to hear a story, the mother retorts, “Don’t be disgusting.”
They even consign her to a private school run by a monstrous dictatorial and sadistic headmistress Agatha Trunchbull. Her only succor comes from the willowy but tentative teacher Miss Honey.
But the tiny heroine harbors a courageous persistence, a refusal to bow to injustice and a mischievous talent for retaliatory pranks. She sings, “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, nothing will change.”
The story is so very Dahl who has always injected his children’s books with the idea that life isn’t perfect and neither are many of the people around you. There is tragedy including abuse, death, torture, cruelty and terror. Justice, compassion and worth triumph in the end and considerable humor is infused throughout, but it’s not a Disney movie.
Let’s get this out of the way. I saw the show in New York and later on the road, and simply never plugged into it. The reason was simple: In New York, about a year into its run, you only could understand 18 percent of the lyrics and 23 percent of the dialogue due to a misguided commitment to garbled British accents. On tour, those figures soared up to 26 percent of the lyrics and 32 percent of the dialogue. The fact that the script and the lyrics were nominated for Tony Awards was baffling. Steven Sondheim has said that the best lyrics are comprehended the first time an audience hears them, even without patrons having studied the lyrics or listened to the CD (or MP3) for hours beforehand (think Hamilton).
So praise is due this production in which, for the first time, 87 percent of the lyrics were intelligible and 92 percent of the dialogue. Some of the actors attempted accents, but they were still understandable – most of the time.
Several of the leading children’s roles are double cast; all those we saw at the Sunday evening opening night delivered a solid job. But the news like a headline on fire was the central performance that day by eight-year-old Alejandra Bess (alternating with West Rubin.)
I don’t know how long Ms. Bess had to prep for this role, but her work is literally amazing. Despite having the solid support of the scores of people on stage and behind the scenes, this diminutive third grader carries the show. In her two-year career, she has performed in several shows in various Broward County companies such as Inside Out. But whoever has been coaching and directing her deserves some kind of award.
To start with, she is actually acting, not putting on expressions to fit a scene as most child actors do. She is totally in the moment for all of this very long show’s duration. Even when delivering a song or a line facing straight into the auditorium, she never breaks the fourth wall. Short of stature and bedecked with long blonde hair, audiences cannot miss her blue eyes alive with disgust and outrage or her small mouth that can pout or twist a bit to allow limited compassion for the benighted adults around her.
She sings well and has the music and lyrics down pat. A sole shortcoming is her enunciation when she rushes through the lengthy scenes in which she tells a multi-part story to a librarian; the story is so convoluted that her mushy delivery makes the bizarre tale impossible to follow. (She pronounced the crucial noun “escapologist” like a Brit but if she’d give it a long American “a” people might know what profession she’s talking about.) But if this is the only complaint, audiences should count their theatrical blessings.
The 30-year-old Area Stage, once acclaimed for daring and cutting edge work, had been better known until a few years ago for the work of its extensive conservatory program and its student productions. But in recent years, John and Maria Rodaz and their team has been ramping up the quality of its adult productions with such impressive work as The Nether and An Octoroon. Some of the most imaginative work such as Matilda has been helmed by their son Giancarlo whose directorial vision is integrated with equally deft talents developed over a decade as set, lighting and production designer.
Matilda marks yet another stop on the upward trajectory of his increasingly impressive resume. Obviously, some of Ms. Bess’ achievement results from his mentoring, but he has elicited memorable performances from what is shaping up to being a kind of repertory crew in Area Stage productions.
Start with Katie Duerr whose lovely voice brings out the inner soul of Miss Honey “Pathetic” and “My House.” Georgio Volpe (the emcee in Cabaret) is the obnoxious self-involved crook of a father who nearly stops the show with his second act opener, a smarmy paean to shallowness “Telly” and throughout exhibiting rubbery Ray Bolger limbs. Amanda Fernandez-Acosta is a delightfully dismissive monster mom whose artistic advice is found in her song, “Loud.”
And a bow to Corey Vega, who was Lord Fahrquar in Area Stage’s Shrek and Ursula in its Little Mermaid. Dressed in a brown uniform, greasy topknot, huge bosom and hunchback hump, Vega finally gets an over-the-top role he can sink his teeth into, chew up with gusto and spit out: the nasty toad-faced gargoyle Miss Trunchbull who refers to her charges as maggots and forces a child who snatched a piece of cake to cram the rest of the entire huge pastry into his gullet until he becomes ill.
The entire ensemble is pretty solid as well, which has 36 members including four double-cast roles. The hidden five-piece band under the leadership of musical director Rick Kaydas delivers a full sound that never overwhelms the cast thanks to sound designer Orlando Hall and stage managers Simon Pincus and Estefania Reyes.
Maria Banda-Rodaz with Oscar Pierucci and Jeana Montgomery once again produce an impressive array of costumes including an obscene green plaid outfit for Mr. Wormwood and a gross outre outfit for his wife including bright red fishnet stockings.
But the most impressive of design elements are the set and lighting design by Rodaz. The broad stage is covered left to right, floor to ceiling with a warren of shelving adorned with books, clothing, dolls, spelling blocks, dolls and some spaces that serve as Matilda’s cubbyhole bedroom. Children can make entrances through corkscrew tubular slides. Swings come down from the flyspace.
This is not a family show so much as a show that has elements to appeal to both children and adults. Some kids are likely to go home with nightmare material and parents will have to spend hours explaining a lot of things to put what they saw in context. In fact, at 2 hours and 50 minutes including intermission, it might all go on just a little long for the youngest viewers.
But for both groups, Area Stage’s Matilda is a sly, wicked tribute to what we all recall about being a child: the love of anarchy, the chilly fears, the need for warmth, the entire absurdity of it all.
Matilda the Musical runs through Sept. 29 at Area Stage Company, 1560 S. Dixie Highway, Coral Gables. 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Runs 2 hours 50 minutes including one intermission. Tickets cost $15-$45. Call (305) 666-2078 or visit areastagecompany.com.