Review: “Matilda the Musical” in Rohnert Park

After a two-year pandemic-induced delay, Matilda the Musical finally hits the expansive Codding Stage at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. The musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s tale of a gifted little girl navigating a treacherous world runs through May 22.

Matilda Wormwood (played by Gigi Bruce Low, alternating with Anja Kao Nielsen) is a miracle child, though her loutish parents (Shannon Rider & Garet Waterhouse) refuse to acknowledge her. Upon Matilda entering school, Miss Honey, her teacher (Madison Scarbrough), immediately recognizes Matilda’s gifts and tries to advance her a few grades. The school’s tyrannical headmistress (and former champion hammer thrower) Miss Trunchbull (Tim Setzer) will have none of it. Trunchbull takes sadistic pleasure in disciplining the students, or “maggots” as she refers to them, but she may have met her match in the rebellious Matilda. 

Miss Trunchbull (Tim Setzer) conducts her dreaded PE class.

Author Dahl’s children’s stories are chock full of villainous adults offset by one or two kindly grown-ups, as is the case here. Cartoonish cruelty is also a hallmark and it’s repeatedly manifested here with things like Trunchbull swinging a student around by her pigtails, forcing another to eat an entire chocolate cake, and dragging students off for a session in the dreaded “chokey”. 

Gigi Bruce Low

Director Sheri Lee Miller endured many challenges in getting this show on the boards so its raggedness in some areas is somewhat understandable. Low gives a technically strong performance, but it appears as if Miller was unable to coax any of the layers of the character out of her that would induce an audience to embrace, sympathize, and root for Matilda beyond what the script demanded. It was left to her “classmates” to bring range and energy to the show. Other young performers like Tyler Ono as the cake-challenged Bruce and Molly Belle Hart as Matilda’s new best friend Lavender were able to rally the crowd to their side.

There’s fine ensemble work done by the “big kids”, particularly in the dance work choreographed by Michella Moerbeek. The younger kids give it their all, but the older teens do a really good job of grounding those scenes. Nico Alva is amusing as Matilda’s monosyllabic older brother.

Among the adults, Waterhouse and Rider were amusingly grotesque as the parents, and Scarbrough and Gina Alvarado as a friendly librarian brought heart to the show. Setzer, and the audience, reveled in his glorious nastiness as Trunchbull. 

There’s also nice work by Jamin Jollo and Bridget Codoni as characters in one of Matilda’s stories brought to life.

The show’s sets, costumes, and props were all purchased three years ago from another production. They’re functional, but they lacked something that I’ve come to expect from a Spreckels production. They may have limited the use of projections, which often add life, color, and, yes, magic to the Codding Stage. Other than one good effect at the end, I missed that magic. And where was Chokey?  

Tim Minchin’s Tony-nominated score was well played by Lucas Sherman’s ten-piece orchestra, but Minchin’s wickedly witty lyrics were drastically underserved by significant sound issues at the opening night performance, an aberration at this usually reliable venue that they will hopefully correct. Far too much of the singing was simply unintelligible.

In Matilda the Musical, children should be seen AND heard.

Tyler Ono (top), Gigi Bruce Low (bottom left), Molly Belle Hart (bottom right), and ensemble (middle)

What shouldn’t be seen are family members with cell phones capturing every moment of a child’s on-stage appearance. Opening night audiences were treated to another Wormwood who chose to ignore every posted notice and the pre-show announcement that photography and filming were prohibited.

They thoughtfully sat in the front row, so their glowing orb of annoyance was visible to the entire house as they recorded every scene featuring their relative. I can’t speak to the distraction they may have created for anyone on stage, but I can sure speak to the distraction created for everyone sitting behind them. The disrespect for the audience and for all the performers on stage was astounding, compounded by the fact that it took two admonishments from the house staff to get them to stop.  

Don’t do it, folks. Please. Just sit back and watch your kids with your actual eyes. Let the audience do the same.

‘Matilda the Musical’ runs through May 22 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Fri, 7:00pm; Sat & Sun, 2pm; Thurs, May 19, 7:00pm. $12 – $36. 707.588.3400. Unvaccinated individuals must mask. Strobe and flashing lights are used.

Photos by Jeff Thomas

This review originally appeared in an edited version in the North Bay Bohemian.

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