BWW Review: TOTA Music & Theatre Conservatory's Magical Production of Roald Dahl's MATILDA: THE MUSICAL
Two weeks. That's all it took. Two weeks.
The youthful cast and crew of TOTA Music and Theatre Conservatory's MATILDA: THE MUSICAL mounted their entire production--choreography, vocals, acting--in a mere two weeks. And when the audience saw the final outcome on either June 26th or 27th on the stage at Palm Harbor University High School, they sat there awe-struck and teary-eyed, laughing and rooting for those kids onstage. When you think about it, with only two weeks to prepare, the entire experience comes across like an old Andy Hardy let's-put-on-a-show-backyard production, which works for this wide-eyed group of nearly fifty young people. Their joy of performing was infectious. All I have to say after witnessing the finished product, especially the work of a young girl named Berlin Head in the lead role, is a single word...wow.
Based on the quirky classic 1988 Roald Dahl novel, MATILDA: THE MUSICAL (music and lyrics by Tim Minchin; book by Dennis Kelly) comes across as smart and joyously mean-spirited, pock-marked with memorable and overall despicable adult characters. It focuses on the title girl, a precocious British urchin who champions reading (even Dostoevsky) and shares stories to a world fixated on the mind-numbing boob tube (one of Dahl's favorite targets if you recall Mike Teevee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). This five-year-old can move items with her mind and ultimately finds inventive ways of tackling the cruel world around her, including her doltish family who dismisses her at best. But she eventually saves the day and even finds time to redeem a beloved teacher in the process. MATILDA: THE MUSICAL would go on to win five Tony Awards in 2012 and has the honor of tying Hamilton as the all-time record-holder for most Olivier Awards won by a musical (seven), which is no small feat.
In a show like this, you need one thing to make it work: the perfect Matilda. It's as simple as that. If you don't have one, if you don't have a youngster who can properly fill the spunky shoes required for this part, then don't do the show because you won't have a quality production. The part of Matilda carries the weight of the show on her small shoulders--a pint-sized Dolly Levi, a little-girl Millie Dillmount. She's onstage almost the whole show, the center of it all, with some very difficult songs. And she has to be a strong actress as well as a dynamite vocalist.
I had the extreme honor of seeing a tiny nine-year-old in the part, and not just any nine-year-old, but an adorable homunculus with a mammoth talent and a voice that can move mountains; this knee-high tyke rightfully earned a rousing standing ovation. Two different girls played the part on subsequent nights, and I was privileged to witness the sterling performance of Berlin Head (Melanie Rusoff played the part on the previous evening).
Ms. Head is certainly Head of the Class talent-wise, and her facial expressions are second to none. In songs such as "Naughty" and "Quiet," she is able to showcase some startling, earthquake-rattling vocals. Unfortunately, you couldn't always understand her dialogue due to her thick accent and way-too-speedy line delivery, but in the end, who cares? She owned the stage, always in character even when it wasn't her lines, with so much ability bursting at the seams. It's a true star turn at any age, but she's only nine! Where does this exemplary, prodigious talent go from here? All I know is that I will keep my eye out for her and remember her name--Berlin Head--because she's got a future on any stage if she wants it.
As the show's chief villain, its Wicked Witch of the West End, is the headmistress in Matilda's elementary school, Miss Agatha Trunchbull. The antagonist towers as a child-hating behemoth who constantly threatens to throw the students into her very own torture device called a Chokey. In the stage version, a male in drag usually plays this hulking harpy, and Zac Philbeck is outstanding here as the evil principal. Donning a George Washington wig as well as fake breasts the size of sea turtles, Philbeck nails the role. He struts around the set like a Nazi officer, calling the students "maggots" and bullying them horrendously like Joan Crawford to her daughter in Mommie Dearest. Resembling Divine if he ever played Norman Bates' knife-wielding mother in Psycho, he's delightfully frightening. His big numbers--like the rousing "Smell of Rebellion"--got the night's heartiest applause.
High schooler Cecilia Garcia is wonderful as Matilda's teacher, Miss Honey, and she has a lovely voice that contrasts to the other "adults" on the stage. Isaac Clark is sensational as Matilda's green-haired dad, Mr. Wormwood, and he gets to show off his strong singing voice in the Act 2 opener, "All I Know." Throughout the show, he looks like he's always smelling something rancid. As Mrs. Wormwood, Alliya Chaffin is a loud hoot. With her volcano eruption of blonde hair, she resembles a ransacked Glinda the Good Witch who just put her finger in a wall socket and got electrified. The show opens with her very much pregnant, and it's obviously a large ball in her dress, but she needs to act like a pregnant woman, back bent, carrying around a rather heavy weight; as it stands, it just looked like an actress onstage with a giant ball in her dress.
As Michael, Matilda's dead-beat brother, Ryon Eberhard is purposely out-energized by the pieces of furniture onstage. He's a lifeless lug, staring dead-eyed and emotionless at the TV-set all the time. It may be hard for some to be full of verve onstage, but sometimes the opposite is true--playing someone devoid of personality, a still life plopped on the couch, may be the hardest part to pull off successfully. And Eberhard certainly does so here. He even gets his moment in the spotlight--a hilarious uke solo that brings new meaning to the word "lifeless." He makes HAL-9000 look like Tigger.
Elana Treiser is a burst of energy as Mrs. Phelps. Keegan Paez, wearing a wig like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, is hilarious as the disco-dancing Rudolpho. Gavin Rabbers and Addyson Reese had strong moments as, respectively, the Escapologist and the Acrobat. Blaine Benson, Evan Leone and Jordan Howard and Grace Hafer added good support. Elise Gomez stood out as the Doctor and at one moment in the song "Miracle" crooned into her stethoscope as if it's a microphone (instead of American Idol, it looked like she was on AMA Idol).
The children and the members of the ensemble were all strong, and I loved that every one of them remained in character, even when someone else spoke. They reacted in the moment, and this is something that is quite difficult with younger actors; it never seemed like they were waiting for someone to finish their lines, which happens so much with performers so young. Although they sometimes were very difficult to understand due to accents and enunciation issues, they were all incredible, especially in their songs and dances. Wonderful work by Allie Morgan, Steffan Robinson, Lillian Townsend, Lauren Rordam, Reagan Miller, Angelina Bundrick, Madeline Morgan, Caroline Morgan, and Emilee Scott.
Special mention must go out to Jack Beck as Bruce and Rachael Hayworth as Lavender. Mr. Beck has a stunning singing voice, as demonstrated in the show's sweetest song, "When I Grow Up," and he guzzles down chocolate cake and fake-belches with the best of them. Ms. Hayworth is quite a find, always full of life and energy onstage, singing her heart out and always in the moment. Although she was not a lead role, if I had to pick a favorite in the cast, that honor would probably go to her.
It helps that professional adults are at the helm. Nick Orfanella has directed this splendid cast admirably, and choreographer Elizabeth Morgan's dances were always clever and showcased the best that these kids had to offer. Shaila Ghanekar's music direction was tops, and the music pit sounded thrillingly tight. Marisa George's sets were minimal and serviceable but could have been much, much more. Roseann Tota and Sarah Duren's costumes worked quite well overall.
But it's all about the kids. The Production Head, Roseann Tota, has a great thing going, providing an outlet for local youths to shine to the best of their abilities. At the end of the performance I saw, the audience rose to their collective feet, in total admiration for a job more than well done. They were stunned and heartened by the young talent and marvelous voices; it wasn't perfect, but it was delightful. And it's safe to say it's better than so many youth shows that take months to rehearse, and yet, this one only took two weeks to mount. That's what I call magical.