Matilda the Musical

By Philip Pearce

MATILDA, the brainy middle-schooler who gives her name to the musical now playing at the Golden Bough in Carmel doesn’t need a trip to Oz to know there’s no place like home.

    Home for Matilda Wormwood is a semi-detached in mid-1980s England and there’s no place like it for crass adult stupidity, mindless adult materialism and loud adult contempt for anyone who, like Matilda, wastes her time reading books.

    When she can, she reads them down at the library, where a sympathetic lady named Mrs Phelps, played with ditsy charm and warmth by Lydia Mansour, listens enraptured to live action flights of fairytale imagination told by Matilda and a couple of hand puppets.

    But much of the time Matilda and her books are forced into a corner of a Wormwood family room dominated by a huge TV which her wheeler-dealer car salesman dad insists is the source of all human wit and wisdom. With plenty of cockney zip and panache, Christopher Scott Sullinger explains in a song called “Telly” that the bigger your telly the smarter you’ll be. Nothing if not an obedient child, Matilda’s lout of a couch-potato brother Michael (a sly and slouching Nathan Stevens) spends his days glued to the goggle box. Mrs Wormwood, portrayed with high energy and bitchy by Aimée Puentes, spends hers bleaching her hair and practicing tango steps with a hired dance partner named Rudolpho, all snaky ballroom glides and suggestive leers in the hands of Sam Lebovsky.   

    The family decide to get their unwanted bookworm freak off the premises and into a special school for difficult children. Bri Slama, sympathetic and blessed with a pleasing soprano voice, is the perceptive teacher Miss Honey, who tips to the fact that her English class has acquired a junior sized genius. She and Matilda launch a running battle with Miss Trunchbull, a storm-trooper of a headmistress with an advanced degree in academic sadism. Played with scary and athletic menace by Rhett Wheeler, this formidable lady makes it vocally clear that her nose is always sensitive to “The Smell of Rebellion,” a student crime she punishes in a room called “The Chokey,” fitted out with Guantanamo Bay style torture equipment. 

    It’s not a rosy picture. But the way clever and clear-sighted Matilda rouses her fellow pupils to rebellion and banishes the terrifying Trunchbull, and waves off her idiotic family, and moves in with Miss Honey is the stuff of the rest of the plot.   

    The challenging role is double-cast, so I only caught Sunday’s remarkable and focused performance by Colette Gsell, who plays and sings in the title part with her usual high confidence and insight. Gsell gets just the right balance between youthful hope, cagy scheming and just plain mischief as she sings “You’ve sometimes got to be a little naughty.” From start to finish you’re rooting for her to win, but there’s no denying she does it because she’s a tough-minded smarty pants with a heart of gold and a will of steel. (Lucia Gaglioti plays Matilda at other performances.)

    Director Susanne Burns shows once again, as in Newsies, that she knows how to organize a cast of energetic young singer-actors in ways that look spontaneous but require high discipline and teamwork. Kenneth Kelleher and Patrick McEvoy create a design that shifts smoothly from scene to scene on the wheels of big interlocking units that reflect the dark doings of the plot without being too bleak about it. 

    Playwright Dennis Kelly’s script follows the mood and pattern of Roald Dahl’s novel. Tim Minchin’s words and music have plenty of punch and irony, but you needn’t look for warm, hummable ballads, nor should you. Dahl’s bestsellers are darkly comic but unflinching looks at the real pains and struggles of modern children.  He knows that young readers and audiences can take—even relish—a good helping of scary material. He’s like my maternal grandfather who became the most popular parent in the neighborhood by always crowding little clumps of his children’s small birthday party guests into a dark closet and singing them spooky songs. 

     Some of the tough and satiric moments in Matilda the Musical seemed a shade too complicated and puzzling for a pair of three-to-four-year-olds seated a row in front of me at Sunday’s performance. It’s not really a show for that very young age group.  But the satiric cartoonish tone and sharp-edged social commentary got a warm response from adult and young adult patrons. And everyone, young or old, felt a jolt of happily-ever-after glee when Miss Trunchbull got pushed off of the stage and permanently out of the story. 


The Listening Place’s trials and triumphs

By Philip Pearce

LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE LISTENING PLACE, Monterey Peninsula’s popular readers’ theater company. They provided local audiences with a fast, funny and entertaining version of Mary Chase’s Harvey at La Mirada Art gallery last weekend and managed it in the face of some daunting political skirmishes and financial challenges.

There’s been a fourteen year relationship between Listening Place producer Linda Hancock and the Monterey Museum of Art. Over those years, Hancock and fellow founders Marlie Avant and Iby Murphy have built up an impressive enough senior fan base to provide the art gallery over two performance weekends with a healthy crowd of extra visitors at $10 apiece and free admission for gallery members. The all volunteer readers’ theater company gained a rent-free venue, and a well-advertised donations basket at the door sometimes covered Listening Place expenses like royalties and refreshments. It looked like a continuing plus for both local art and local theater. But look again.

If you’ve been awake, you’ll know full well that print news, symphonic music, visual arts and theatrical performances are all battling the crippling effects of cable news, YouTube home viewing and Netflix streaming service.

The Salinas Californian, no longer a local print daily, has had to abandon its Salinas office, which used to provide a well-equipped performance space for Listening Place Saturday matinees. A new high-profit management approach at the Steinbeck Center decrees that they will no longer provide performance space for Listening Place shows. The Monterey Museum of Art says gallery deficits and overhead mean even full members must pay up for shows by Listening Place, which in turn must pay rent for use and maintenance of museum space.

Not a happy picture. But nearby Monterey Peninsula College theatre has shown a feisty optimism in spite of  cruel financial cuts and a kit of anti-arts bureaucracy from Sacramento. A notable example was Gary Bolen’s brilliant  one-man show last December of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as an MPC Performing Arts benefit.

Listening Place, at least for the moment, moves on with bright products like Harvey and a version of Arsenic and Old Lace this coming May to be directed by Maryann Rousseau. 

And the cast of Harvey included some new top local acting talents along with regular company performers. Jeffrey T Heyer (pictured) reprised his excellent Western Stage performance in the classic American acting role of Elwood P Dowd (“Let me offer you one of my cards”) still accompanied, after all these years by his amiable six-foot rabbit Harvey. Susan Keenan was fidgety and funny as Dowd’s distracted social climbing sister Veta. There were Listening Place regulars on hand like Richard Boynton juggling farce and love-interest as a junior grade psychiatrist at a local insane asylum. The ever-resourceful Bob Colter did irate wonders as a snorting small town judge and doubled hilariously in high couture feathered hat and diamond earrings as a shrill Southern California matron. Western Stage favorite Kathy Cunningham (nee Cusson) was a ditsy delight as Boynton’s pretty nurse assistant. Listening Place newcomer Brittney Buffo couldn’t help being a bit too good looking as Dowd’s not very marriageable worrywart daughter Myrtle Mae. Then there was the versatile Carl Twisselman, all chewing gum-cynicism as a guy who drives and grapples with rebellious patients for the psychiatric clinic. Cindy Womack and Nancy Bernhard took turns at the two matinees in the dual roles of a taxi driver and of the confused but accommodating wife of the asylum’s chief medical officer, played with explosive hilarity first by Scott Harrison and then by D Scott McQuiston when Harrison was taken ill between performances.

Although last Sunday’s performance overlapped with the Super Bowl kick-off it still attracted a near full house. And it all happened at the La Mirada second gallery, which is better lit, and has much better acoustics than the big echoing hall at the Museum’s main branch on Pacific Street.  

And when I last looked a lot of senior spectators seemed to be dropping big bills into the donations basket.