Considering Matthew Shepard

By Roger Emanuels

THE STORY OF MATTHEW SHEPARD, the gay young man tortured and left to die in the Wyoming countryside has been told in books, film, poetry, song, stage play, television and documentaries. A musical production, Considering Matthew Shepard, is now playing at the Crocker Theater at Cabrillo College. It’s a recent work for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, composed by Craig Hella Johnson and premiered in 2016. Often referred to as an oratorio, it is usually performed in concert. The Cabrillo Music and Theater Arts Departments have taken on the work by adding costumes, acting and scenery in a stunning production by Cheryl Anderson, music director and Joseph Ribeiro, stage director.

A cast of 51 singers is a lot of people to move about and still keep the singing tight. Movement is minimal, never static, but just enough to create and maintain a fluid landscape. These local folks of the mountain region dress in their everyday work clothes and interact with pleasantries. Even as they were spread over the width of the stage, the chorus sound was clean, unified and resonant. There is plenty of fine solo and ensemble singing too. Johnson’s score contains music weaved from a variety of musical sources. The opening cowboy song sets the scene. Later, a jazz vocal quartet is performed with just the right pizazz. Other references are to popular music with even a hint of African rhythm.

Composed in three sections, Prologue, Passion and Epilogue, Johnson shapes the work similar to the Passion oratorios composed by JS Bach in the 18th century. The play opens with Bach’s Prelude in C Major. A Lutheran hymn, common in Bach’s music, comes at the end. The Passions tell about the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Through Johnson’s choices of texts, he creates a work of suffering, death and redemption. The texts are from Lesléa Newman, Hildegard of Bingen and Gabriela Mistral, among others.

The scene on stage is in the countryside near Laramie, Wyoming, a field where Matthew was left to die. Scenic designer Skip Epperson created a minimal set that allows endless variation with lighting. A meandering split rail fence becomes Matthew’s place of crucifixion. At one point, the fence rises up and closes into a circle, suggesting the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. The only other object, except for a few boxes and bales of hay, is a blob of a cloud on the back wall. Later in the play the blob lowers and becomes the distant hills, enhanced by ever changing lighting choices. It is visually stunning and believable. Three songs use words from the fence where Matthew was tied and tortured, “I held him all night long, I cradled him like a mother.”

In the “Stars” piece, Matthew’s father makes a statement to the court after the tragedy. The lighting effects, evoking a night sky throughout the theater, were beautiful. The instrumental ensemble of strings, clarinet, guitar and piano enhanced the vocal lines. Some lovely piano solos, played by Leah Zumberge, connected the scenes.

Following the story of this 100-minute work is a challenge, and benefits greatly from reading the libretto in advance. It is easily available online through a search. The supertitles provided were minimally useful and varied in quality of projection. Much of the time they were not readable from my seat.

The music progresses gently throughout the two acts. In melody and harmony it is very attractive music, seldom approaching avant-garde techniques, with just enough piquant dissonances to give a fresh sound. It is mostly gentle, soothing music that belies the underlying drama of the story. As I was unable to read enough of the supertitles in the first half, too much of the narrative impact passed me by.

On a dramatic level, Considering Matthew Shepard is a powerful work with a strong emotional punch. As music director Cheryl Anderson says, “It is a timely story and one that encourages us to reawaken our love for the appreciation of one another beyond the boundaries of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender definition, economic background or age. It invites us to take a stand for love, forgiveness, understanding, and justice.”

There is much to enjoy in this production. Cheryl Anderson and Joseph Ribeiro have created a musical stage work of great beauty with wonderful singing.

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.