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5 Things to Love About ‘Matilda’ at Children’s Musical Theaterworks — besides rejoicing that it opened

I’ve written extensively about the ups and downs of the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Matilda,” and for good reason. If any show exemplifies the challenges faced and perseverance required of a theater company during uncertain times, it’s this one.

Pictured above: Kate Breton plays Matilda (sharing the role with Hannah Williams.) Photo: Children’s Musical Theaterworks

After a sold-out opening weekend due to social distancing, “Matilda” continues through Sunday, June 20. And plenty of tickets are available for the second and final weekend, thanks to relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.

I don’t do official reviews of CMT shows, but I do share some of the things I really like about a production. With that, here are Five Things to Love about the new  “Matilda”:

1. Julie Lucido’s direction and choreography.

Somehow, in the midst of a nine-month rehearsal schedule, even while she was dealing with changing opening dates and rotating cast members, negotiating with worried parents, learning about viral dispersion in indoor spaces, and conducting enough research in arcane health statistics to qualify for employment at the Centers for Disease Control, Lucido managed to put together a show that was both socially distanced and engaging.

Sure, there are some “asterisk” distractions for the record book, including clear plastic shields worn by the cast members (which muffles the diction a bit, but at least we still to get to see faces, which is essential), and a ballroom dance number in which the performers don’t actually touch each other.


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But look at the way Lucido stages the infinitely clever “School Song” number, in which the children of Crunchem Hall Elementary School run through A-through-Zed lyrics detailing the agonies of the institutions. (I love the bike pump for “L.”) In theater, bodies don’t have to physically touch to symbolize human connection; these kids obviously form a cohesive tribe without a tactile element. (Dan Aldape’s encompassing lighting design also plays a big role.) Once I got a few minutes into the show, in fact, the only time I thought a lot about social distancing was a brief appearance by Russian thugs; the thought that even Mafioso types would adhere to current health regulations by wearing face shields made me smile.

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Part of the magic of theater is the audience’s suspension of disbelief. We can accept lots of things that aren’t realistic — a scrap of scenery to suggest a building, a shaft of light to command our attention. So why not a world in which COVID-19 is tacitly acknowledged — and subjugated? It doesn’t make the virus a star; it means that ingenuity and theatricality have ruled the day.

2. A stellar lineup of veteran Fresno-area actors in adult roles.

Consider this an all-ages cast for the majority of performances. There are some very strong efforts by principal cast members. Michael Brandon Fidalgo is a wonderfully smarmy Mr. Wormwood, Matilda’s unfortunate father. His limber, twisty comic physicality is stellar. Karina Balfour is garishly good as the obnoxious Mrs. Wormwood (Jen Ruiz’s sparkly costumes for her happily break the Tacky O’Meter). And Emily Swalef is compelling as the gentle and sweet-voiced Miss Honey, Matilda’s concerned teacher.

(We’ll get to Miss Trunchbull, the world’s worst headmistress, in a moment.)


The Munro Review on CMAC: A special episode devoted to ‘Matilda’


3. Bruce’s primal opening note in “Revolting Children.”

By the time we reach this point in the show, Bruce (played by Natalia Priolo) has become the poster child in the musical for the ways that adults can demean and trivialize children. In the pounding anthem “Revolting Children,” Priolo lets loose with a choral scream to start the number. It’s an attention-grabber, to be sure, and full of victory — the type of call-to-action that starts revolutions. All children, at one point or another, would like to scream and rail against the injustices of the adult world. And all adults have some sort of primal memory of that. Or at least they should.

Attention should be drawn, also, to the vocal performance of Kate Breton as Matilda (who shares the role with Hannah Williams). Her voice is smooth, strong and meaningful. And Connor Levy has some nice moments as the Escapologist. (Viewing tip: Listen to the cast album or read a synopsis of the show beforehand so you can follow the complicated stories that Matilda tells; the lyrics are pretty dense, and the face shields make it a little harder to understand. I’d give this advice for a professional production as well. It took me a few listens to really nail down the Escapologist and Acrobat storylines.)

4. The lyrics.

Full disclosure: As a Tim Minchin groupie, I am head over heels for his smart lyrics he’s written for such shows as “Matilda” and “Groundhog Day.” And check out his solo albums; I have a song of his titled “If This Plane Goes Down” on heavy rotation that I can’t get out of my head.

If this plane goes down
Remember me as someone who went down with
Fair results, but grand intent
Found meaning in how phrases can be bent
To the will; where will my remains be sent
To be eventually dentally identified?

The songs in “Matilda” are chock-full of wonderful wordplay and biting commentary, from the opening number mocking the coddling of children:

One look at my face, and it’s plain to see
Ever since the day doc chopped the umbilical cord,
It’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me!

. . .  to the aforementioned “Revolting Children”:

We’ll find out where the chalk is stored
And draw rude pictures on the board
it’s not insulting we’re revolting.

But the song that impacts me more than any other is “Quiet.” It’s sung by Matilda at a particularly cacophonous moment in the show with chaos erupting around her.

Second full disclosure: I have been heavily influenced regarding this particular song by a New Yorker interview with Minchin that I read way back in 2013, before I saw the musical on Broadway. Michael Schulman writes:

He wrote “Quiet,” a dissonant ballad that draws on Matilda’s mental turmoil. As Miss Trunchbull berates her, she retreats deep into her thoughts, posing a series of Cartesian questions:

Have you ever wondered, well I have, about how when
I say, say, “red,” for example, there’s no way of
Knowing if “red” means the same thing in your head as
“Red” means in my head when someone says “red”?

“She’s shuffling through what she knows about relative perception,” Minchin explained. “What she’s trying to say is ‘I think I might be different.’ ” As the music escalates, so does Matilda’s cognitive maelstrom, until she is able to tip over a cup of water with her mind.”

What we have, then, is grist for an undergraduate philosophy seminar. How do I know if anything I “see” in my mind’s eye is the same as anyone else? Or, for that matter, what if the way you see the actual color red is different from my perception? (Um, color blindness, anyone?) To keep our collective sanity, we like to think the world is consistent, but after years working as a journalist, I know that perceptions — even eyewitness accounts from two people at the same scene — can vary in vast ways. Part of growing up, I think, is learning how to cope with that knowledge. It all gets back to the realization that we’re all, ultimately, trapped in our heads, separate and apart from each other.

I could go on. And on. I could dig deep into the musical’s philosophical underpinnings. Heck, I could turn the song “Quiet” into a hymn for a new religion — with a permanently running $50 million production of “Matilda” in New York as the Vatican and Minchin as its pope.

But I won’t. Instead, I’ll suggest to you that if the CMT production is the first time you’ve listened to the songs in “Matilda,” give yourself a treat and listen to the cast album. I think you’ll be intrigued by the intricacies you discover.

5. Randy Kohlruss as Miss Trunchbull.

Traditionally played on stage by a man, the evil Agatha Trunchbull is as important a character as Matilda — the yin to the yang, the awful to the hopeful, the pessimistic to the belief that with a little luck, the world can be a fairly good place. With Kohlruss’ portrayal, I’ve now seen three Trunchbulls (the others were Bertie Carvel on Broadway and Bryce Ryness in the national tour), and he more than holds his own within that august lineup. Also, he is the fiercest (and scariest) of the three, and that’s saying something.

Kohlruss plays the role with a stomp and a clenched, booming, tank-like presence. Hunched over like a predator on the prowl, with his bowl-cut bangs and low, rumbling roar of a delivery, I immediately thought of a rampaging T. Rex in “Jurassic Park” —  and also a wild pig snuffling for truffles.

His singing is ruthlessly fun, his deadpan delivery is a kick, the way he carries his body is hilarious. It’s a highlight performance in a highlight production. It’s the icing on the (chocolate) cake in a production that took on greater significance than just another winter spring summer CMT show. Just the fact that “Matilda” happened at all is a testament to the way that theater can heal.


Show info

‘Matilda the Musical,’ a Children’s Musical Theaterworks production at Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium. 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 18, and Saturday, June 19; 2 p.m. Saturday, June 19, and Sunday, June 20. Tickets are $22.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Steph

    Excellent writing. You obviously love this show. Minchin was also one of my very top Judas performances in JC Superstar (the show I love the most).

    I’m seeing the show again this weekend. As someone very unfamiliar with Matilda I’m looking forward to hearing the lyrics more clearly. I’m wondering if they’ll keep the masks now that the state is open. As great as this production team is, I’m sure they addressed the difficult to hear diction.

    You highlighted 5 great things. I have to go farther. Shannah Estep as vocal coach has to be praised. Sometimes with kids you’ll hear a sweet out of tune or off pitch lyric. Not here. Not at all. Soup to nuts the singing was stellar.

    One of the hardest things for a director and the team to do is schedule rehearsals so the show will peak at just the right time. How hard was it to control this!!?!! Nine months and yet when the lights came up, it was literally a “miracle.” Another point: Not a single British accent threw me off. Even with the slightly different dialects, these performers were nails.

    Unlike you, I have no problem giving my honest review to any production that I had to pay for.

    This Matilda will join the annals of the best of CMT (a long list indeed).

    Just awfully good work all around. Thanks for providing your great insights.

    reply
  • Jackie Ryle

    Wow, Donald. This is a blockbuster review. I thoroughly enjoyed your masterful interviews. You are particularly adept with the kids. That’s not easy, and you really brought out the best, both with your questions and ability to keep it moving. And I hadn’t seen the video, so watching it while reading your review was fabulous. Great overall experience. Thank you! I didn’t have it on my calendar but sure am going to try to see it!

    reply

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