Matilda the Musical, the show about an uncannily – perhaps magically – brilliant child currently running at Area Stage Company in South Miami, is an ideal show for Giancarlo Rodaz, its director and designer. Rodaz, at 24 the youngest son of Area Stage’s founders John Rodaz and Maria Banda-Rodaz, has grown up telling stories onstage, starting as a child actor and moving on to writing, directing, and designing as a teenager. While it is about many things, at its heart Matilda is about the power of stories – particularly the power of telling your own story, taking back your destiny from those who would throw it away and crunch it under their heel, through the tale of a miraculously intelligent, book-loving, telekinetic little girl who defeats her stupidly stupid parents and outrageously cruel, controlling headmistress with her mind, heart, and determination to change the unfair story of her life.
Of course Rodaz, whom everyone at this bustling conservatory and theater troupe calls Jon Jon, has not been abused. But he’s certainly precocious. With Matilda he has taken on a show that is more richly multi-dimensional than any he’s ever done at ASC before, even his marvelously original version of Shrek the Musical. The result is terrifically rewarding, despite some staging and performance issues. Matilda is a wildly entertaining production that is also resonant with emotion and meaning, with vivid performances and gorgeously imaginative design. The cliché “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” fully applies here. Do go, don’t wait. Matilda runs through Oct. 6.
Based on the 1988 book by Roald Dahl, the master of dark, comic, fiercely child-centered fiction, Matilda the Musical was created at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010, with songs by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly. A measure of the show’s genius is how much it adds new dimensions to Dahl’s story. It’s profoundly subversive and original, a contemporary classic that promises to stay relevant. Matilda was a hit in London, then on Broadway. Its tropes have become famous: Matilda singing Naughty, an anthem of resistance to life’s unfairness (it’s true, check the lyrics); the malevolent grotesquerie of headmistress Miss Trunchbull; the life-affirming swing-borne sweetness of When I Grow Up; the delirious, rule-stomping Revolting Children. All of which makes it very hard to make this show your own.
But Rodaz largely succeeds, all the more impressive because he’s not only the director, but the production, set and lighting designer. Despite reproducing some of the more famous numbers, his Matilda is a world of its own. That starts with the set in Rodaz’s whimsical steam-punk aesthetic, a floor to ceiling arc of packed bookshelves, creepy baby dolls, curving tubular slides from which children burst out, and cramped nooks where Matilda shelters to fantasize a better life. Tiny, exquisite carnival dioramas display Rodaz’s loving eye for visual detail. Ideas are built in; giant central sliding doors reveal scenes from the mysterious backstory of the Escapologist and the Acrobat, then become a looming animated ‘blackboard.’ Illuminated, fluttering books, manipulated in darkness by actors, are a metaphor for the show’s core emphasis on story, but they’re also beautiful, floating images in themselves.
All the performers are fine, and some are outstanding, as good as you’ll find in South Florida. Rodaz has worked with some of the 20-something actors since they were teenagers together, building an organizationally loose but creatively close-knit ensemble. He’s also great with kids (maybe because he was so recently a kid himself), and has spent years teaching and directing the child students at ASC’s conservatory.
This affinity makes for excellent performances. The large child ensemble charges through their numbers with exhilarating energy, engagingly natural but sharply focused. As Matilda, 8-year-old Alejandra Bess (who alternates with West Rubin, 11), has a powerful gravity and magnetism that’s just right for her character; with an uncanny ability to center a stage. Urchin-ish Elijah Leaño is excellent as Bruce Bogtrotter, the cake-eating boy who defies the Trunchbull.
As Miss Honey, the loving, beaten down teacher empowered to become Matilda’s ally, Katie Duerr gives the best of her many ASC performances; appealingly vulnerable and eccentric, with a new sweetness, clarity and expressiveness to her singing in the ballads Pathetic and My House. Malik Archibald is warmly convincing as the Doctor who’s the only one welcoming Matilda to the world, to the consternation of her narcissistic, ballroom dancing mother (Amanda Fernandez-Acosta.) The lip-lolling, dumbfounded Enzo Roque is perfect for Matilda’s moronic TV-addicted brother.
As Miss Trunchbull, Corey Vega delivers a tour de force that tops his flamboyant Lord Farquaad in Shrek. With his hulkingly padded torso and slithery stride, blackened grimace and grotesquely shadowed face, Vega is simultaneously feral and hilarious, genuinely menacing (I saw some little girls in the audience cowering) and deliciously ridiculous.
And Gio Volpe, as Matilda’s father Mr. Wormwood, tops himself yet again, even after his standout roles as the Emcee in Cabaret and Pinocchio and more in Shrek. Someone big needs to discover Volpe, one of the most charismatic, creative, physically expressive and talented actors I’ve seen in South Florida and beyond. He’s electrifying, a mesmerizing, fluidly darting figure in a green plaid suit, an invincibly confident fool and obliviously cruel clown incapable of recognizing his daughter’s brilliance or common humanity. You can’t look away, can’t stop laughing – or cringing. (Do not miss his improvisation at the end of intermission.)
Musical director and conductor Rick Kaydas adroitly leads an energetic, agile 5-piece band. Banda-Rodaz’s costumes are satisfyingly vivid. Irma Becker’s choreography is energetic and rhythmically tight, if sometimes a tad mechanical.
There are shortcomings, which, while they don’t spoil the show, do hamper its impact. Bess is very hard to understand, to the point of sometimes being unintelligible, in the long stories she tells the librarian Mrs. Phelps (a glowing Abigail Baldwin) about the Escapologist (also Archibald) and the Acrobat (Valeria Di Babbo), clouding a key part of the plot. (I was not able to see West Rubin in the role.) The staging for Naughty, the emblematic song where Matilda proclaims her defiance, is awkward and obscured, further impeded by Bess’s diction, when she’s once again difficult to understand. Staging for most of the scenes for the Escapologist and Acrobat is also obscured, so dimly lit as to be almost invisible. There’s too frequent feedback on the sound system. Some of the numbers mimic the original versions too closely for my taste.
But these issues are not enough to overwhelm what is, finally, a profoundly moving and inspiring show. Rodaz gets an extremely tricky balance right here: between comedy and feeling, between the cruel absurdity of a world that beats you down and the exhilaration of defiance and the power of humanity. Matilda wins not just because she’s ridiculously brilliant (and a little bit telekinetic), but because she stands up for herself and the story she knows ought to be. Which Rodaz tells at Area Stage for us.
Heading into a decade after Matilda was created, its central message of resistance is more germane than ever, for adults as well as children. As its five-year-old heroine sings “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it… that’s not right. And if that’s not right, you’ve got to put it right.”
Matilda the Musical runs through Oct. 6 at 7:30pm Friday, 2pm and 7:30pm Saturday, and 5pm Sunday, at Area Stage, 1560 So. Dixie Highway, Coral Gables, 305-666-2078. Tickets are $15 to $45 at areastagecompany.com