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THEATER REVIEW: Matilda

by Chris Conley

Today's blog comes from my parent's house in Fairfield, Connecticut. Tomorrow the train ride back to Wisconsin begins .

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Several people have asked me to blog about Matilda, the Broadway musical that I saw with my daughters last week.

I was hesitant about the show, because I'm skeptical about demanding roles that involve child-actors. I no longer watch the 1939 Wizard of Oz. The more I've read about the making of the movie, the more I realize that the beautiful product on the screen is the result of outright child abuse behind the scenes. Matilda, which has been running for about a year to rave reviews, was embroiled in a complaint from one of the stage-hands a few months ago. A wrangler (a person who works backstage in productions involving children who gets them off after their scene, keeps them together and quiet, and then gets them back on the next time they're on-stage) wrote a Dear John letter to the New York Post. She alleged that the associate director is a screaming task master, to the point that the young children are often crying during rehearsals and some have told their parents they don't want to perform any more. It would disturb me if my night at the theater came at the expense of 9 and 10-year-olds who really don't want to perform.

So, here's what can be said about Matilda. It's delightful. Both of my daughters have read the story and seen the movie, and they loved the way it was presented on-stage. This is also the most child-actor-dependent show I've ever seen. (Yes, even more-so than Annie, where the star is in every scene but the rest of the orphans have a lot of down-time.)

There are actually four young girls who play Matilda, each doing two shows a week. Our Thursday night show starred 9-year-old Ava Ulloa. She was a very good dancer, and a not-quite-as-good singer. It was obvious that no 9-year-old achieves that level of performance without being drilled... a lot. She and her fellow cast members, 6 more kids -- ages 9, 10, and 11 -- have their choreography down-pat. The more I wonder 'how do they perform like that', the less comfortable I am. It's also telling that the four original Matildas from when the show opened on Broadway all bowed out after 6-months. The standard Broadway contract is one-year. Several adults cast members have also turned over before the show's one-year anniversary. Those are clues of an unpleasant working environment, especially when the show itself is a hit. Matilda was well done.

Both of my daughters loved it. But I can't help but wonder is something ugly is just below the surface. I'm fairly certain that's not a life I'd want for my kids.

Chris Conley
8.18.14

PS - As much as I love the theater, I struggle with Shakespeare. Apparently, I wasn't taught it right. The Royal Shakespeare Company (they are the producers of Matilda) have launched a new way of teaching the master's works. Shakespeare is meant to be heard, not read. Hearing his words spoken, or seeing his plays performed, increase understanding and makes his plays less cumbersome. And RSC is designing Shakespeare lessons that are focused on presenting the works through sight and sound instead of just by reading. They're having some success, and their efforts are worthwhile.