Matilda: A musical for the times — Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater stages the play later this month at UMass

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  • Kai Healey, foreground left, Henry DiNapoli, center, and Ashleigh Thayer, far right, dance with the cast of "Matilda" to the number "Revolting Children" during a rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. The LSSE production of "Matilda" will run for nine performances in January at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge Auditorium. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ruth Dinsmore, far left, and Kai Healey and Henry DiNapoli, foreground left and right, dance with the cast of “Matilda” to the number “Revolting Children” during a rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School. The LSSE production will run for nine performances in January at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge Auditorium. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Gustafson, right, of Amherst, in his role as Mr. Wormwood, rehearses with other “Matilda” cast members, from left, Sophie Michel of Amherst (as Matilda), Grace Olmsted of Northampton (as Mrs. Wormwood) and Cameron Gray-Lee of Amherst (as Michael.) STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sophie Michel of Amherst sings a number as the lead in the LSSE production of "Matilda" during a rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sophie Michel of Amherst sings a number as the lead in the LSSE production of "Matilda" during a rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. The show will run for nine performances in January at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge Auditorium. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cindy Naughton, center, musical director for the LSSE production of "Matilda", provides accompaniment for Sophie Michel, on stage, in the lead role during a rehearsal. Cameron Gray-Lee, left, of Amherst plays the role of Michael in the show. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Gustafson, left, of Amherst, in his role as Mr. Wormwood, rehearses with other "Matilda" cast members, from left, Sophie Michel of Amherst (as Matilda), Grace Olmsted of Northampton (as Mrs. Wormwood) and Cameron Gray-Lee of Amherst (as Michael) on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, at Amherst Regional Middle School. The LSSE production will run for nine performances in January at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge Auditorium. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sophie Michel, left, of Amherst, in the lead role of Matilda, listens to Bob Gustafson of Amherst, in his role as Mr. Wormwood, during a rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, for the LSSE production of "Matilda". The show will run for nine performances in January at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge Auditorium. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 1/2/2020 8:46:27 AM

AMHERST — Some audience members who see the upcoming ALSCT production of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” at Bowker Auditorium may find that someone else comes to mind when Eric Macksoud, playing Miss Trunchbull, storms onto the stage.

The tyrannical headmistress of the Crunchem Hall Primary School — also known as The Trunchbull — wears a dress, but her belligerent character may, to some, bear a resemblance to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Based on the children’s book by British author Dahl, “Matilda The Musical,” opened on Broadway in 2013, three years before Trump was elected President, and the novel upon which it was based was written in 1988. But according to Dave Grout, the director of the Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater (ALSCT) production of Matilda, the Tony Award-winning musical is relevant to the current political climate, from debates about the role of public education to the impact of conservative news outlets on voters to the power of a child to stand up to adult authoritarianism. ALSCT’S “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” opens on Thursday, January 16, at UMass’ Bowker Auditorium with nine performances over two weekends.

“A big part of the show is about people who are oppressed under the rule of a loud-mouthed authoritarian leader whose last name just so happens to begin with the letters TRU,” Grout said with a laugh, referring to the character of Trunchbull and the potential parallels to President Trump. “The connection is there, if someone wants to make it.”

“I think Trunchbull is a representation of fear and that’s what makes her a good and timeless villain,” Macksoud said of his character.

Grout said Dahl’s work, while written ostensibly for children, really also is aimed at adults and Matilda is no exception.

Information and ‘the telly’

Matilda tells the story of a young girl born to abusive parents who finds escape in her imagination, in books, and in creating stories. At school, she encounters Miss Trunchbull, who declares the school motto is “Children are Maggots.” But Matilda finds refuge in her kind teacher, Miss Honey, who also had a difficult upbringing. Matilda teaches her classmates that although life is often hard, it is not impossible to overcome difficulty, and sometimes that requires one to be, as one of the show’s main musical numbers exhorts, “a little bit naughty.”

Matilda’s parents, Mrs. Wormwood, played by Grace Olmsted, and Mr. Wormwood, played by Robert Gustafson, are a pair that derive most of their information from “the telly.”

“They believe the television tells you everything you need to know,” Grout said. “You don’t need to think for yourself. Matilda is born into that family, but she is drawn to reading and is gifted with a teacher who sees her talents and believes in her.”

The musical’s story is simultaneously about the power of a teacher to transform the life of a child and the child to transform the teacher, but also about larger cultural issues related to how much people are willing to think for themselves and what constitutes knowledge. What came to mind for Grout, in thinking about how to direct the musical, was the rise of the conservative media outlet Fox News and the impact it had on getting President Trump elected in 2016.

“Why do people choose leaders who use antagonistic rhetoric to diminish others and apply offensive labels to those who disagree with them?” Grout wrote in his director’s note for the Matilda playbill. “The answer is disturbingly simple — life is easier when someone else makes your decisions for you, telling you how to think, how to act, and who to blame. When Mr. Wormwood sings about the “telly,” he is telling us that it is a lot easier to be told what to think than to learn to think for oneself. His wife, Mrs. Wormwood, tells us that being loud is better than being knowledgeable.”

With her love of learning, Matilda stands in contrast to her closed-minded parents, and in some ways, is reflective of progressive social movements and political figures that emerged in the aftermath of Trump’s election. One such figure that might be likened to Matilda is teen climate activist Greta Thunberg who has chastised world leaders for not doing enough to combat the climate crisis, while repeatedly being dismissed by President Trump on Twitter.

“Matilda is the true teacher in this show,” Grout said. “She teaches everyone how important it is to think for yourself, and that when you realize that something is wrong, you need to stand up against it, and if you don’t, you might as well be saying, ‘you think that it’s all right.’ Complacency is equivalent to approval.”

Dramatis personae

The title role of Matilda is played by Sophie Michel of Amherst. Michel, 11, is a a sixth grader at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School.

“As soon as I saw the ad on the playbill at last year’s ALSCT show, I knew I wanted to play Matilda,” Michel said. Her parents — both once Shakespearean actors who met at drama school in London — helped their daughter to rehearse over many months before she won the title role at an audition in September.

“I thought it would be really exciting to play Matilda,” she said. Michel’s own parents are loving and nothing like the Wormwoods, she said, but Matilda’s love of learning appealed to her.

“I really like to read, so I can connect with Matilda because of that,” Michel said. “She’s an interesting person and you never really quite know what she is going to say... I can’t really relate to her family or her school, but that is what makes it interesting to play this part. I get to try out a whole different character.”

Michel said although some of the musical’s content is “intense,” in many other areas, it is lighthearted and fun, with rollicking, complex dance numbers and catchy tunes.

“One of the main songs the audience will recognize is Revolting Children,” said choreographer Sue Dresser. “It’s a fun, up-tempo, spirited number with a lot of energy. The kids are doing such a great job and have really worked hard on this show.”

“I think it will appeal to kids, but there is also a lot that adults can really appreciate,” Michel said. “Younger kids can just listen to the music and enjoy the humor that comes up.”

As much as the show carries a theme about standing up for what is right, it is also the tale of a relationship between a gifted young student and her teacher, Miss Honey, played by Amelia Morgan-Rothschild, 36, who performed as a child and teen in many ALSCT productions. Originally from Amherst, Morgan-Rothschild was most recently living in Portland, Oregon, and working as a therapist before deciding to return to the Pioneer Valley. She studied theater at NYU and pursued acting in New York before moving to Boulder for graduate school and then, to Portland. Morgan-Rothschild did two professional off-Broadway tours as an actor.

Morgan-Rothschild said she is amazed at how much ALSCT has evolved since 1992, when, she said, “we were just kind of putting it all together.”

“It is all so professional and it is just beautiful to see how it has all grown,” she said. “It’ll be fun to perform on the stage where I first started acting. It is also very heartfelt because I was once all of these kids here in Matilda and now I am coming back as an adult. It’s a full-circle experience.”

Morgan-Rothschild was drawn to the role of Miss Honey because, much like her character, she is in a period of personal transition.

“I am almost just finding my voice and my strength in the same way that Miss Honey is,” she said. “I am doing a lot of personal healing work and I feel Miss Honey’s journey resonates with mine. She goes from being this shy, scared person to finding her love and power in the world.”

In Matilda, Miss Honey’s character also had a troubled childhood: her parents died and she was adopted by a mean aunt.

“Miss Honey is one of the few adults in the show who tries to bring love and a sense of understanding to the children,” she said. “The principal is horrible. Matilda has parents who don’t understand her. All the adults are over the top and Miss Honey serves as a grounding force. She says, ‘Life is OK, you are safe, there can be love and support for you.’”

Morgan-Rothschild said the show touches upon the challenges of growing up and how all children need at least one adult who loves them unconditionally and believes in them.

In contrast to Miss Honey’s sweet, loving demeanor, Eric Macksoud portrays the school’s headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, as “the personification of evil,” he said.

Originally from Rhode Island, Macksoud, 28, lives in Sunderland and works as a substance abuse counselor in Holyoke. He studied theater in college and has acted in numerous productions, but is now mostly focused on acting for fun and as an outlet from a job that can be difficult.

“I am used to playing slick, slimy, and loose characters,” Macksoud said. “What I am trying to bring to life in this character is the comedy, but also how genuinely terrifying she is.”

Macksoud said Trunchbull’s beliefs are extreme, but are still held by some in society. “Her main belief is: ‘children have a place in the world and that is beneath me.’ This woman genuinely believes that children should not have fun,” he said.

Macksoud said the show serves as a reminder to adults to preserve the “positivity and innocence” of childhood as a balm to the inevitable difficulties and demands of adult life.

Grout hopes the story of Matilda will inspire audience members — including children — to value education and knowledge and to feel empowered to make their own decisions.

“This show... is not just a reflection of the world we live in,” he said. “It is a call to action. Biased news and information have existed for as long as language has existed and never has any one news outlet, textbook, or politician given us the complete picture of any issue. Instead of recognizing different sides of issues, factions of Americans seek out news that confirms their beliefs... and anything that doesn’t is “fake news.”

Grout hopes Matilda emboldens audience members to “seek out the truth and fight for it, even if doing so makes us feel uncomfortable or unsafe.”

There are nine performance dates for “Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical” from Thursday, January 16, to Sunday, January 19, and from Thursday, January 23, to Sunday, January 26, at Bowker Auditorium in Stockbridge Hall at UMass, Amherst. Tickets can be purchased online (click here to buy tickets online) or by calling the LSSE office at 413-259-3065 or in person at the LSSE office, Amherst Regional Middle School, 170 Chestnut Street in Amherst (Mon-Fri, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.).

Sandra Dias is a Holyoke-based freelance writer. Her daughter Avy performs in the ensemble of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.”




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