Civic’s ‘Matilda’ a fun and inspiring adventure

By John Lyle Belden

“Roald Dahl’s Matilda, The Musical” not only features Dahl’s brilliant dark satire but also the sharp wit of songs by Tim Minchin, with book by Dennis Kelly. Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents this “miracle” on its stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel through May 14, directed by Suzanne Fleenor.

In a generation of British children convinced they are wonderful and special, there is Matilda Wormwood (Alexis Vahrenkamp), whose parents take a different approach.  Her mother (Mikayla Koharchik) resents that the birth kept her from a ballroom & salsa dance contest; her father (John Walls) can’t get over the fact that she is not a boy, like her dull-witted brother, Michael (Matthew Wessler); and they both can’t stand she insists on always reading books full of stories. Why can’t she just watch telly like a normal kid? 

Mr. Wormwood is working on the deal of a lifetime, not letting pesky stuff like ethics get in the way. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wormwood works on her dance steps with slinky partner Rudolpho (Michael Humphrey). To their delight, Matilda, who has been “a little bit naughty,” will go away to school, where she’ll be sorted out by sadistically cruel Headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Evan Wallace).

Fortunately, our heroine has some allies. She befriends local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Kendra Randle) and thrills her with stories she spins about an Escapologist (Matthew Sumpter) and an Acrobat (Isa Armstrong). Her sweet but mousey teacher Miss Honey (Julia Bonnett) sees the girl as gifted and pledges to help her reach her potential. On the schoolyard, precocious Lavender (Nye Beck) declares that she and Matilda are Best Friends.

While the title character is the show’s focus, its events also involve her classmates. The plight of brave Bruce (Cole Weesner), betrayed by his sweet tooth, helps bring the children to the realization that “the Trunchbull” must be defeated. But it’s Matilda’s most special “gifts” that will turn the tide.

This fun musical is a great showcase of young talent, and an entertaining inspiration for the kids of all ages watching. The adults aren’t bad either – actually the ones who act badly, Koharchik, Walls, and especially Wallace, are the best.

So, put aside the Telly and enjoy the antics of some truly “revolting” children. For information and tickets see civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic adds suspense with ‘Wait Until Dark’

By John Lyle Belden

“Wait Until Dark,” the suspense stage drama by Frederick Knott, relies on a belief many consider a myth, or exaggerated at best: That the blind have heightened senses to compensate for lack of sight. In the play’s adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, presented this month by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, this becomes true for Susan as she is constantly trained, both by herself and near-bullying by her husband, to be hyper-aware of her surroundings, so as to become more self-sufficient.

Rather than consider this a superhero adventure like a Daredevil comic or Netflix episode, the theme here (and lesson, if you want to draw one) is attention to detail. For Susan (played by Carly Masterson) the importance eventually becomes life-and-death, but in everyday terms it helps her avoid a stubbed toe on the furniture and to keep track of what switches are on and off. Such attention to detail is vital to our villain, Roat (Jay Hemphill), as well. He always wears gloves, has a thought-out plan, and is quick to adapt when a doll of unusual value reaches the wrong destination. Let the game of wits begin.

In Greenwich Village in 1944 (set earlier than previous stage/film versions), Carlino (Parrish Williams), a dirty ex-cop who still carries his badge, takes a quick look around a basement apartment. He is joined by Roat, who discuss the fact that their female partner had the doll on a train and hid it in the bag of the man who lives in the apartment. But when she went to get it back from him (with an innocent-sounding story), she said they couldn’t find it. Roat finds this unacceptable, as evidenced by the woman’s body hanging in the closet. But before these two can carry the corpse out, the man’s blind wife, Susan, comes home. During the intense minutes before she leaves again, the men stay perfectly still. She senses them, but assumes it is Gloria (Mary Kate Tanselle), the girl who lives upstairs whom she hires to help around the apartment, playing another nasty prank.

Susan’s husband Sam (Colby Rison) ironically makes a living with his keen eyes, as a photographer. Serving with the Marines in the War in Italy, what he saw through his camera broke him mentally. While in the hospital, he met Susan (recovering from the accident that blinded her) who suggested he recover by taking pictures of babies and brides – which is now his living.

Roat and Carlino book fake appointments to take Sam a distance away, while they work to con Susan out of the location of the doll. Complicating events is a surprise visit by Mike (Lukas Robinson), who says he’s an old Marine buddy of Sam’s. He stays around, sharing Susan’s growing suspicion of the other men’s actions. Suspense builds towards the famous climax in which Susan’s handicap becomes her biggest asset, while Gloria, who came on the scene a total brat, gets her shot at being the heroine.

Even if you’ve seen any version of the show, or know where the doll is (or why it’s special), this production, directed by Emily Rogge Tzucker, will still have you on edge. Masterson gives us a woman who, while vulnerable, is strong and resourceful, and easy to root for. Rison’s Sam comes across a bit mean, but truly loves his wife. Williams is usually reliable for comic relief, and arguably there’s a couple of moments here, but he never loses his sinister edge. Hemphill just oozes evil and the overconfidence that is Roat’s one weakness. Robinson, in his theatrical debut, works his charming character like a pro. Tanselle, as the tween coping with parental strife at home and menial work for her neighbor, plays a nice character arc from irksome to trusted partner. Note that on coming Sunday matinees, Gloria will be played by Izzy Ellis.

An old thriller that still thrills, “Wait Until Dark” plays through March 26 in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, see civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic steps up with Hitchcock comedy

By John Lyle Belden

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films is also one of his earliest successes. “The 39 Steps,” a 1935 spy thriller set in Britain, not only reflected the tensions of inevitable war with Germany, but also set the style and elements of most of his classic movies that followed. They include the innocent man on the run; settings in famous landmarks; the icy, beautiful blonde…

However, when you see “The 39 Steps” as presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, you might think of another famous filmmaker – notably Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety,” in which the comic genius thoroughly spoofed Hitchcock’s work. Yes, this thriller is a comedy! Adapted from the film (and the 1915 novel by John Buchan) by Patrick Barlow, from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, the noir farce involves just four frantic actors and (like “Anxiety”) a few references to other Hitch classics.

Matt Kraft has just one role, but it’s a doozy. His Richard Hannay gets thrown into all manner of unlikely situations, including being set up for murder. To clear his name, he must rush from London to Scotland and back. Along his story, he encounters Haley Glickman as a doomed spy, a starved-for-excitement Scottish wife, and most importantly the woman who is determined to have him arrested, until she realizes the cops aren’t real. All other roles are played by Eric Reiberg and John Walls, in the program as Man #1 and Man #2, though the roles are also referred to as the Clowns. This latter label definitely works, as they slip into various characters and caricatures exhibiting Monty Python-level hilarity. For their part(s), Kraft and Glickman manage an excellent mix of slapstick and leading-couple chemistry.

Sharp direction is provided by John Michael Goodson (if he did a Hitchcock-style cameo, I missed it). Clever stage design by Ryan Koharchik has set elements all on rollers, so scene changes match the manic pace of the show.

No need to go all the way to the Highlands for this adventure, just as far north as Carmel, on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts through Feb. 19. For info and tickets, go to civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.