Performing Arts

Area Stage’s magical ‘Matilda the Musical’ showcases young talent, including its director

Alejandra Bess as Matilda tells a story to Abigail Baldwin as the librarian in Area Stage’s ‘Matilda the Musical.’
Alejandra Bess as Matilda tells a story to Abigail Baldwin as the librarian in Area Stage’s ‘Matilda the Musical.’

Childhood should be a time of intellectual and emotional growth, nurturing within a loving family, a safe harbor before having to face the myriad challenges of the adult world. For the luckiest kids, childhood is exactly that.

But not for Matilda Wormwood.

The young heroine of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel “Matilda,” a 1996 movie version and the 2011 London/2013 Broadway hit “Matilda the Musical” is a gifted British 5-year-old who voraciously devours full-length literary classics.

Yet she’s stuck in a particularly crass working-class family, with a dance competition-obsessed mum focused exclusively on her own looks, a crooked used car salesman dad who refers to Matilda as “he” or “boy,” and a nearly non-verbal brother who could be the poster child for TV-obsessed couch potatoes.

At school, she’s one of the many victims of the bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, whose punishment of choice is to lock any student who annoys her in “Chokey,” a tiny closet lined with protruding nails, broken glass and spikes. Yikes.

“Matilda the Musical” is now getting its professional regional premiere at Area Stage in Coral Gables, where it runs through Oct. 6. The national tour has already played the Broward Center, and two local children’s theater companies (Boca Raton’s Sol Children[CQ] Theatre during the summer, Fort Lauderdale’s Florida Children’s Theatre in October-November) have tackled or will produce the show.

But here’s a tip: Do not miss Area Stage’s stellar production, which is nearly perfect in every way.

“Matilda the Musical” is the artistic handiwork of the multifaceted young director Giancarlo Rodaz, who also designed the show’s ominous set, lighting and overall look (including drawing and animating the projections, which are key to the production). He comes by his many talents honestly: His parents, John Rodaz and Maria Banda-Rodaz, founded Area Stage 30 years ago on Lincoln Road, and their son grew up immersed in the world of theater.

Collaborating with musical director Rick Kaydas (who leads a wonderful live band), choreographer Irma Becker, costume designer Maria Banda-Rodaz and sound designer Orlando Hall, Rodaz has devised a deeply impressive production of the Dennis Kelly-Tim Minchin musical.

Tonally, it flows flawlessly from the abundant dark side of Matilda’s life to the edgy laughter supplied by the pranks of “naughty” children and Matilda’s clownish father. It is also moving and poignant, thanks to an episodic story Matilda tells the enraptured local librarian and to Matilda’s evolving relationship with her caring teacher Miss Honey.

The action unfolds on a stage filled on either side with floor-to-ceiling shelves, which are jam-packed with oversized books, dolls and toys, plus two twisting blue slides to facilitate some nifty entrances. Rodaz’s lighting palette sometimes makes the set look haunting, which is too often the way the world presents itself to Matilda. Little nooks represent Matilda’s room and the place where she does her storytelling, and the addition of chairs creates a classroom where Miss Trunchbull regularly appears to terrorize the children she loathes.

Some of the children’s roles are double cast, chief among them Matilda. Alejandra Bess (who alternates with West Rubin) is a talented young performer who beautifully acts, sings, dances and pulls off a fine British accent. An 8-year-old third grader, Bess impressively anchors a production that runs 2 ½ hours, and her energy is unflagging. She could, however, slow down her delivery and enunciate more clearly as she tells the story of the acrobat and the escapologist, since that tale is key to the plot.

Miss Trunchbull is always played by a man in hilariously hideous drag, and Corey Vega looks like a proper ogre in Banda-Rodaz’s costumes, which deliberately emphasize “her” lumps and bumps and hairy legs. Vega is funny yet always menacing – his Trunchbull is likely to haunt the nightmares of some of the children in the audience – and when he blows his ear-splitting whistle, it isn’t just the onstage students who sit up straight.

Katie Duerr plays the empathetic, damaged Miss Honey, Matilda’s port in the storm that is her life. A University of Miami student, Duerr has an exquisite voice that conveys warmth and sensitivity as she sings “This Little Girl” and “My House.”

The actors playing Matilda’s dysfunctional family members are a hoot, with rubber-limbed Giorgio Volpe as the deceitful Mr. Wormwood (his “Telly” is one of the show’s highlights), Amanda Fernandez-Acosta as the flashy Mrs. Wormwood and Enzo Roque as Matilda’s stupefied brother Michael. O’Ryan Montgomery plays the full-of-himself Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood’s dance partner.

Abigail Baldwin is lovely as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who hangs on Matilda’s every word. Malik Archibald and Valeria Di Babbo hauntingly portray the escapologist and the acrobat, with Archibald also playing the doctor who delivers Matilda to a surprised Mrs. Wormwood, who thought she was just getting chubby.

The boisterous kids in “Matilda the Musical,” who sing and dance up a storm, are portrayed by Gracie Membiela (alternating with Camila Uribe) as Matilda’s self-declared best friend Lavender, Elijah Leaño as the chocolate cake-thieving Bruce, Nicholas Perez as Nigel, Adriana Ayala (alternating with Grace Alvarez) as Amanda Thripp, Stefano Kruger as Eric, Clarissa Chiossone (alternating with Emma Van Assche) as Alice, Ava Ortiz-Garcia (alternating with Bianca Friedman) as Hortensia and Mason Lang as Tommy.

Also in the large company are Jorge Amador, Sofia Graeff, Chloe Hyden, Anjuli Kaufman, Lily Knoll, Diana Lopez, Peyton Lopez, Paloma May, Sofia Silkworth, Diana Sonntag, Alexandra Stockton and Chad Urena.

A word to parents of the youngest potential theatergoers: This “Matilda the Musical” isn’t a junior version of the show. It’s the full-length London/Broadway hit, and little ones may get restless, though Rodaz and company keep the production engaging moment-to-moment. Some of the language can get rough. A few moments are scary or startling.

Still, anyone who appreciates excellent regional theater should seek out Rodaz’s production, which is already selling like hotcakes. It’s triumphant.

ArtburstMiami.com is a non-profit source of theater, dance, music, film and performing arts news.

If you go

What: “Matilda the Musical” by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly.

Where: Area Stage Company, 1560 S. Dixie Hwy., Coral Gables.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 6.

Cost: $15-$45.

Information: 305-666-2078 or www.areastagecompany.com.

  Comments