Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Matilda the Musical (Ovation 2019)

I read quite a few Roald Dahl books when I was a kid. However, for some reason, I never did read Matilda. My memory of 35 years ago isn’t terribly detailed, but I am guessing that this was probably the result of a few factors. First, my mom wasn’t fond of truly naughty children in books - and even less fond of stupid parents in books. So, I might have not heard about it because she wasn’t interested in having us read the book. Also, it was marketed (by, say, the book cover) as being a girls’ book - this was the 80s, after all. So it might not have caught my eye, or been placed with other books of interest to girls in the library display. Or maybe I read the back and didn’t find it interesting. Whatever the case was, I didn’t read it. 

However, on a road trip (prior to my starting this blog), we listened to it on audiobook, and I found it quite enjoyable. 

There were a few reasons I was determined to see the local stage version. First, a legal colleague was in it. Second, a few of my musical colleagues were playing in the band. And third, the cast list included some of my favorite local actors. So, we went. 

For those few unfamiliar with the book, Matilda is a seriously precocious child, born into an unappreciative family. Dad is a shady used car salesman, while mom is a former dancer who hates that Matilda essentially ended her career. They can’t understand why she reads books rather than watching “the telly.” When she goes off to school, she makes friends with her teacher, Miss Honey, who appreciates her. And also makes an enemy of the brutal headmaster, Miss Trunchbull. Matilda must find a way to keep her beloved books, while defending her classmates from the wrath of Trunchbull. I won’t spoil the plot. Fortunately, the play hews pretty closely to the book. 

The production we saw was at the Ovation Theater, one of several local theaters in our vibrant arts scene. 

Because Matilda has a large number of children in the cast, I will mention them first. The part of Matilda is a huge one, requiring solid vocal chops and a lot of charisma. This production had two actors alternating in the role. We saw Kya Leyendecker in the role. She was outstanding, and I think worth keeping an eye on as she grows up. 

Kya Levendecker as Matilda 
(All photos: Ovation publicity photo)

I can’t individually mention all the rest, but I was thoroughly impressed with their preparation, acting, and especially their excellent pitch. The kids obviously put in long hours practicing, and their teachers are to be commended. This bodes well for the future of the arts in our town. 

As far as the adult parts, I want to mention a few. First, Braeden Addison, who played multiple parts, including the Russian mobster. He is an Ovation regular, and always makes me smile. Riordan Banks was hilarious as Rudulfo, the dance partner and possible paramour of Matilda’s mother. David Allen (another regular in local theater) as Mr. Wormwood, Matilda’s father, was perfectly cast. And even more perfectly dressed. That loud plaid suit was amazing. Erica Briscoe, as Mrs. Phelps the librarian, turned in a solid performance in one of the few truly straight roles. 

David Allen as Mr. Wormwood (plaid suit), Braeden Addison (kneeling) as Sergei
Tara Haner (blonde in rear) as Mrs. Wormwood, Riordan Banks (right rear) as Rudolfo

 That suit demands a closer look. And that tie...

I may be biased, but I thought that Tara Haner, my legal colleague, was hilarious as Mrs. Wormwood. She portrayed the ditzy dancer as kind of an Oildale meets Keeping Up Appearances low class, high volume sort. Her squeaky voice was perfect - and I am impressed she kept both that and the Cockney accent while both acting and singing. That’s tough stuff, and she nailed it. 

Nancee Steiger (Miss Honey), Riordan Banks (Rudolfo), and Tara Haner (Mrs. Wormwood)

Nancee Steiger (Miss Honey) has long been one of my favorite local actors. It really is a shame she isn’t in more productions. (Past favorites of mine were If/Then, Assassins, and The Glass Menagerie.) As Miss Honey, she nailed the earnestness and deer-in-the-headlights look necessary for the part. 

 Dominic Demay (Trunchbull) and Nancee Steiger (Miss Honey)

Finally, I have to commend Dominic Demay for his turn as Trunchbull. He too is an Ovation regular, last seen getting impaled by a slot machine handle (while singing You Make Me Live) in Disaster! I cannot think of a better person to play Trunchbull, as he brought the menace, and the overwhelming stage presence that a Trunchbull requires. Not a bad little flip move either. 

The band deserves some love too - despite difficult logistics (it’s a really small theater), they brought it. Kudos to Ovation for hiring real musicians. 

Matilda runs two more weekends, so if you are local and have a chance, definitely go see it. 
Not directly related to the play, but interesting: The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, which is the story of Roald Dahl’s career as a spy in World War Two…against the United States.  

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