BWW Review: Fun and Cheeky MATILDA - The Musical Amuses at Segerstrom Center

What is often uniquely wonderful---and, once in a while, unfortunate---about live theater is its unpredictability, in that sometimes unscripted surprise moments take over.

That very notion happened for the packed house of kids and adults alike that gathered recently for the Orange County opening night press performance for the Olivier and Tony Award-winning MATILDA - THE MUSICAL at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. After almost an hour delay, the audience, sadly, had to be told by the national tour's management that the scheduled performance that evening was not going to happen as planned---all due to some stubborn technical difficulties that the crew tried so diligently all evening to fix.

Understandably, for the safety of the production staff and the cast (many of whom are very young children with a curfew quickly approaching), the audience was dismissed. As a proud theatergoer, I was relieved not to witness too many complaints about the theater's decision, though, admittedly, the sight of a few tear-stained faces from a few little ones walking outside did break my heart a little.

As predicted, Segerstrom Center happily reissued tickets to patrons (and, yes, us press folk), assuring that the much-anticipated arrival of the just recently closed Broadway musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's novel will be seen at another time during its performance run through January 29 in Costa Mesa.

As we walked out en masse that evening, I repeatedly overheard some variation of the same phrase from several patrons:

"In all my years of going to shows, that has never happened!"

They are, of course, referring to the cancellation of a show due to technical difficulties. Looking back at my own long history as a theatergoer, this statement surprisingly applies.

BWW Review: Fun and Cheeky MATILDA - The Musical Amuses at Segerstrom Center
Photo by Joan Marcus

I have sat through many live theater showings where something---whether it's an uncooperative set piece, a microphone on the fritz, or a wardrobe malfunction---goes awry in the middle of it all. But still, everyone soldiers on through the rest of the show. Realizing that a cancellation of a show due to technical difficulties is certainly not a new phenomenon, it still made me think about the kinds of shows that would force such an action if something were to happen.

Remembering back to my first exposure to MATILDA - THE MUSICAL---during the national tour's launch at the Ahmanson Theatre in nearby Los Angeles back in the summer of 2015---I can definitely understand why.

The show, which tells the tale of clever 5-year-old telekinetic bookworm Matilda Wormwood, is a vividly colorful, eye-popping visual and technical marvel, replete with a stunning cacophony of theatrical magic and intricately moving set pieces and props that all work in cohesive precision to try to recreate the fantasy world of Dahl's well-known story.

The show, in a way, partly hinges on a complex sequence of well-choreographed, wow-inducing set pieces and production numbers that not only enhance the theater experience but also help propel the wildly outrageous aspects of the story. From Hugh Vanstone's lighting design and Simon Baker's sonic creations, to Paul Kieve's "illusion" design and Peter Darling's electric choreography---all working in conjunction with Rob Howell's impressive sets and costumes design---MATILDA - THE MUSICAL is not a simple show to pull off.

It's no wonder, then, that if even just one piece (large or small) malfunctions in this sequence, the show is thrown into chaos. The special effects of the show is, admittedly, one its audience draws; to present the show with any part of those effects in jeopardy or not in its full glory would certainly be a disservice to the overall presentation---which this show in particular relies on heavily.

Be that as it may, MATILDA - THE MUSICAL, overall, is genuinely a fun time. It's a cheeky, kid-friendly (and, really, kid-catering) stage musical that has plenty for both kids and their parents to enjoy together. Featuring lively songs by Tim Michin and a witty, yet easily digestible book by Dennis Kelly, MATILDA - THE MUSICAL celebrates how one adorable, truly likable kid ---who, sure, may seem a little odd and different---can overcome a troubled environment and still come out the other side a remarkably self-assured, open-minded, and kind-hearted young lady who can fully distinguish right from wrong---while having a bit of naughty fun along the way.

The surprisingly demanding title role, appropriately enough, is played by three rotating child actors who each take their turns for each performance. For my "make-up" return visit to the show, Matilda was played by Jenna Weir, who at her young age displayed some remarkable acting and vocal skills that can rival even many actors multiple times her age (Hannah Levinson and Jaime MacLean alternate with Weir at different performances).

Weir is also surrounded by a cast of wonderfully over-the-top pint-sized and full-sized actors to play the various people that affect Matilda's life.

In Dahl's fantastical story, the extraordinary yet sadly underestimated Matilda Wormwood is born into a world where the neighborhood parents dote on their little "miracles,"---their self-indulgent yet truly unexceptional children. Matilda, on the other hand, spends her days in a household where she is often berated, brushed aside, or completely ignored by both her inattentive, loudly-dressed mother (the very funny Darcy Stewart) and her scheming, fraudulent father (the hilarious Matt Harrington) who keeps yelling "boy!" at Matilda even though she is clearly a girl. Her older brother, uh, mentally challenged Michael (Darren Burkett) even gets more love from the Wormwood parentals than she does.

To alleviate some of her strife, Matilda retreats to her own bedroom "library" to escape into the world of literature. Other times, particularly as a reaction to Mr. Wormwood's cruelty, she often plays harmless but hilariously naughty tricks on her father, from pouring neon green dye into her father's hair tonic to super-gluing his hat to his head right before an important meeting with Russian mobsters.

Outside her home, however, Matilda---an avid, above-average reader with a gifted mind, a vivid imagination, and a penchant for pointing out unfair and detestable things and taking creative action---is mostly celebrated as the extraordinary person that she is. Her visits to the local library are especially enjoyed by Jamaican-accented librarian Mrs. Phelps (the bubbly Keisha T. Fraser) who gets excited to hear Matilda's enchanting stories.

Matilda, not surprisingly, also becomes a beacon of intelligence, activism, and civil disobedience at the prison-like Crunchem Hall, the local school she attends that is ruled by the scary, former Olympic hammer-throwing champion headmistress Miss Agatha Trunchbull (the incredible Dan Chameroy). Even amidst the incarceration-like environment, Matilda's effortless display of knowledge and critical thinking catches the attention of her new teacher, the kind-hearted, mousy Miss Honey (the lovely Jennifer Bowles), who makes it her mission to encourage Matilda's studies and to seek extra ways to challenge her remarkable intellect.

The authoritarian dictator Miss Trunchbull, however, runs the school with an evil demagogue's fist, creating a constant, seemingly insurmountable obstacle not only for Matilda, but also for Miss Honey and the other scared students (No joke, some of the character's egomaniacal lines eerily parallel some of the things being said by, uh, well... someone we all know with a similar first initial---and I along with several audience members even laughed at the very timely correlation).

But, as you may predict, our little heroine with a big heart, a big imagination, and lots of chutzpah finds a way to triumph through it all.

That is, of course, the main factor in liking the show. Audiences will happily root for the title character, a staggeringly intelligent, well-read youngster who can spot unfair things in the world and doesn't stay silent when she sees them happening...then swiftly takes action herself. The fact that this tiny heroine is crammed into the persona of a spunky 5-year-old makes it that much more adorable.

The cast of over-the-top thespians also aid in making the musical enjoyable. Besides the awesome principal cast, scene-stealing standouts include Stephen Diaz's Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood's very limber ballroom dancing partner (and, uh, secret paramour maybe?); Riley O'Donnell as Lavender Brown, Matilda's squirrelly BFF; and Aiden Glenn who does a great job as poor cake-stealing, Chokey-destined Bruce. Bravo, Aiden for those solo riffs and sassy line readings!

And funny enough, you will also gleefully cheer for the show's deliciously sinister main "villain" Miss Trunchbull, whose tyrannical rule over what she calls "revolting children" while simultaneously showing a soft spot for her past triumph with dainty delight... is a visual that, well, you just don't want to un-see.

While MATILDA - THE MUSICAL, for me, is still a bit hindered by what I have often called "exaggerated accent syndrome"---the over-affected, over-British-ified of accents rendering much of the songs and some of the dialogue virtually incomprehensible---the buoyant spirit, infectious joy, and childlike wonder enveloping the musical never wanes. Luckily you pretty much get the gist of the story and plot despite the hard-to-decipher diction. Having been exposed to cast albums and the liner notes that accompany them, I feel I had an advantage over the casual audience member seeing/hearing this for the first time---yet, I'm almost certain that alone doesn't deter one's enjoyment of the show overall.

In essence, MATILDA - THE MUSICAL is a charming, visually arresting, high-tech musical that will amuse the kids and warm the hearts of adults. Can't really beat that these days.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of MATILDA - THE MUSICAL by Joan Marcus and Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Review also published in OnStage.

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Performances of the National Tour of MATILDA - THE MUSICAL at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, January 29, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.


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