Stop Watching the Telly and See This Show
Summer is hitting its midpoint, and thus many theatres around town are mounting the last of their ‘18-’19 season programming. Squarely in that camp is Diamond Head Theatre, celebrating a whopping 104 years as told to us in the preshow by Artistic Director John Rampage. I have only just started watching Diamond Head Theatre shows within the last two years, but I am always reminded by the talent and designers that take the stage of the bar of quality DHT sets for itself. Fantastic vocals, clear and dynamic choreography, and detail oriented sets and props are hallmarks of a DHT production. It’s easy to take for granted that nine times out of ten, DHT’s shows will wow audiences with the hard work that is put into the beautiful spectacles and storytelling they produce year in, year out.
I believe that they have achieved a new standard for themselves, that being their final show of the ‘18-’19 season- MATILDA THE MUSICAL, directed by Bryce Chaddick.
MATILDA THE MUSICAL is a musical adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel. Many are familiar reading the book as youth (or reading it to youth), and many also recall the movie adaptation directed by Danny DeVito in 1996. With the book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and orachestrations and additional music by Chris Nightingale, this stage adaptation brings to life the fantastical, complex, and dark world that Matilda Wormwood navigates to life with conventions and music that allow it stand on its own.
“My parents say I’m a miracle.” We are introduced to kids glued to screens with extreme amounts of privilege, rivaled only by their parents who seem to dote on them excessively in that “helicopter parent” style. All of this love for children, and we are introduced to the birth of one child that is not loved by her parents at all: Matilda Wormwood (Rockell Kim, alternating performances with Caris Leong). Unlike her peers and her siblings, Matilda is not attracted to screens and toys but is rather crafty, resourceful, and absolutely loves devouring books, much to her family’s chagrin. To escape the banality and humdrum of her parents (Mathias Maas as Mr. Wormwood, Rache Sapla as Mrs. Wormwood), Matilda often visits the library where she tells local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Marguerite Mckenna) stories of her own concoction. Here, the audience is introduced to the subplot of an acrobat and an escapologist, two performers who fell in love and whose many perils and victories shadow Matilda’s trials and tribulations in her own life. At the library, the audience is also introduced to the other individual whom this story follows: Miss Honey (Malia Munley), Matilda’s teacher. She suffers from extremely low self-esteem, yet sees brilliance in Matilda and wants to cultivate that when it’s clear that Matilda is head and shoulders above her peers. At school though, the iron-fisted and cruel headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Christopher Obenchain) quickly dashes Miss Honey’s wishes to grant Matilda more difficult coursework. Matilda is resourceful though, and acts out against her oppressors through clever pranks that do not leave her culpable. She even discovers she has the power of telekinesis, and uses that to her and her peers’ advantage. Though she originally stuck out, her class is quick to see that she is something special and aren’t afraid to band together when the situation arises. However, will their solidarity be enough to overcome the hater of children, Miss Trunchbull, as she enacts her own wicked sense of education on the students?
The cast and ensemble deliver all around. The strength of Phil Hidalgo’s musical direction comes through as the cast rings in pitch perfect and clear. Natalie Uehara’s choreography is dynamic, challenging, and wonderful to look at while the cast consistently hits their marks. Small role or large, the cast should be proud of the great work they have achieved.
One performance that stood out was Obenchain’s Trunchbull. Balancing the character in drag and not delivering a caricature, we are treated to a villain that we love to hate and hate to love, as Obenchain’s charisma oozes amidst the cruel and unusual punishment Trunchbull delivers to her students. Munley’s Miss Honey is the soul of the show, vulnerable and endearing in her performance. Her arc is central to the production, and Munley drives it home with a firm tenderness that allows her to fight for her students and for herself at the same time. Kim’s Matilda demonstrates she understands the role well; there is an element of lonesome and longing to her performance, but it does not define her as she constantly rises above adversity and takes the time to enjoy the little things in her life. Finally, Sapla and Maas were wholly entertaining and wholly terrible parents- a testament to their wonderful performances.
The tone of this production is fairly balanced. I believe that in TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) productions, shows should not shy from hard, difficult, or dark themes (though they should not be excessive either). After all, Dahl himself wrote many dark elements into his books. MATILDA THE MUSICAL, while not a TYA production, follows the same philosophy that Dahl wrote from and Minchin further expanded upon, and finally director Chaddick zoned in on for this production. I firmly believe this was the right direction to take the show, as life does not ease up. It is important to demonstrate what loss, loneliness, and cruelty looks like, at least in a semi-fantastical world; even better, the pacing of the show does not let any of these less positive moments overstay their welcome. It is important for parents and adults to realize how close to the scariest parts of this show are: the reality that our children are being taught the wrong things and the wrong way, and that they may end up as selfish and isolated as many individuals in our world currently are. This is a production that both children and adults can enjoy and learn from.
Chaddick’s team is visionary. I’ve mentioned the music and choreography, but the rest of the design team brought aces to the table as well. Dawn Oshima’s lighting frames the scenes wonderfully, and goes hand in hand with Michelle Bisbee’s detail-oriented set design. Set against the backdrop of a modern world, many apps that congregate under a family a roof are on display in the Wormwood home, such as Netflix, Amazon, and Youtube; Matilda’s (and later, Miss Honey’s) room is the only analog thing there, which is covered by a smartly designed composition notebook connected to a proscenium filled with Matilda’s doodles, formulas, and quotes she has read and wants remembered. The tone changes gears to the strict and harsh land of Trunchbull’s adademy, and the seamless changes out of these and other locations are beautifully executed. Hats off to prop designer John M. Cummings and whoever else helped on bringing Matilda’s puppets to life; the detail and attention paid to the props were amazing (especially all of the cutouts, fold-able pieces, and paper creations!) but seeing the puppets come to life with elements of bunraku puppeteer was a treat on its own. In fact, the circus elements were a delight to see work onstage- all of the designers and cast that were involved with that, thank you for all of the fun elements you have delivered (like the scrolling title, the sharks in the water, the clear conventions of the acrobat (Bailey Barnes) and the escapologist (Jonas Leiato)), as that was always a treat to revisit and one of my most favorite elements in the production. Kerri Yoneda’s sound design helps bring the various locals to life, and the costume design by Karen G. Wolfe and Aiko Schick’s hair and make-up was top shelf. It’s wonderful to see how easy a costume and wig could transform the age of a performer, and it was also beautiful to see the graceful detail that were in the costumes of the acrobat and escapologist when they were given human counterparts. They also did a fantastic job with Obenchain, transforming him into the mean machine that Trunchbull is, and I especially found hilarious the shade of green they chose for Maas’ Mr. Wormwood. After a prank by Matilda, Mr. Wormwood’s hair turns green; I daresay it does turn green in that beach blonde sense, and the wig they elected to use paired with Maas’ complexion led me to see a jab at the 45th President of the United States. The character also said “Russians” constantly throughout the show (per the script), and I think I was the only one that drew this comparison, or at least the only one that found it funny the evening I attended.
Chaddick and his team, again, have brought their A-games to this production. “Miracle” opens and brings us into this semi-realistic world with color, comedy, and really quick costume changes. The sequence of scenes (especially the first time we see them) connected to the story of Matilda’s circus performers is a wonderful display of staging conventions and beautiful design choices. “When I Grow Up” is one of the most endearing and heart-wrenching songs you’ll ever watch and hear, and the delivery the cast demonstrates with their paper props and adult/kid selves will tug at least one of your heartstrings. Miss Honey’s story is equally as captivating as Matilda’s, and will hook you from beginning to end. This production is a story about being yourself and writing your own story, not having someone (or something) write it for you. Matilda and her peers rise to the top through teamwork, resourcefulness, and perseverance, all excellent traits to be gleaned by audiences young and old alike.
If you want to have a wonderful evening of storytelling, MATILDA THE MUSICAL is a great start. Refreshing, innovative, and contemporary, the production is loaded with heart and soul (and mischief!) from beginning to end. MATILDA THE MUSICAL is running at Diamond Head Theatre through August 11, playing on Thursdays through Sundays. For tickets, click this link here.