Matilda, the Musical at Swamplight Theatre
It’s almost hard to believe that it’s been just two years since Matilda, the Musical had its regional premiere with a stellar Tulane Summer Lyric production as, in that short pandemic-filled time, it’s become a staple of local high schools (Hahnville in pre-Covid 2020) and community theaters with three productions scheduled in the greater New Orleans area in less than a year.
Than again, maybe it’s not so hard to believe as it’s a tuneful, wildly imaginative show based on the popular Roald Dahl book with, perhaps most importantly, lots of roles for kids (cue an audience filled with admiring parents).
That’s not to say it’s easy to do. Those kids better by razor-sharp actors to convey both the brainy British stylized humor of the script as well as the underlying pathos of children trapped in an untenable situation. Plus you need a leading actor who can do ugly drag, sing convincingly as though a woman, and be wholly menacing to those aforesaid tykes.
Swamplight Theatre in Ponchatoula was fortunate to have all that and more for its recent Matilda, the first of the three we’ll be seeing in the 2021-22 season.
Swamplight is a producing organization relatively new to me as I just discovered it in the past year, first when it hosted RoBenHood Productions’ The Pillowman last fall. Swamplight is also home to The Kay Butler Performing Arts Project which has a drama camp workshop and classes in acting, music, choreography, and other theater arts. A number of people involved with Matilda are either current students or alumni of the Project.
Admittedly, I was not thrilled with the first Swamplight show I saw, 13, back in April, but that was less the production’s fault than due to the inane book and forgettable score. Working with Matilda’s much richer material allowed the Swamplighters to show off their numerous strengths.
With its somewhat odd structure that includes seeming detours into mere storytelling, Director Vicki Jarrell did a fine job of keeping the narrative of this part-comedy, part-fantasy, part-revenge thriller clear and understandable. Working with choreographers Chloe Vallot and Josiah Rogers, she filled the stage with vibrant, cinematic movement and ensured that the pacing never flagged.
A Matilda can only be as good as the young actress playing the lead role, a hyper-intelligent girl who “sometimes [likes] to be a little bit naughty.” In this, Swamplight was fortunate to have Tianna Miller its first weekend (Henrie Campbell Delaney was scheduled for the second weekend).
Not only did Miller display great timing and delivery of her drily witty lines, but she demonstrated tremendous poise and stage presence throughout, especially when, during her signature number Quiet, a monumental clap of thunder rattled the building just as she sang the word “silence”. Other than the briefest turn of her head, she stayed completely in character and continued on with the song. Brava.
That said, along with most of the rest of the cast, Miller could have enunciated her words just a little bit more. Some lyrics were also lost due to microphones that didn’t always fully cooperate.
Kendel Smith who, according to his bio, “was an original at Wigstock in the East Village, NYC and performed with them for 25 years”, crafted a befittingly evil Agatha Trunchbull, the tyrannical headmistress of Matilda’s school, and made her his own creation by finding the latent girlishness in her.
Steven Rushing was a suitably slimy and sleazy Mr. Wormwood, Matilda’s father, the kind of nincompoop who thinks he can get the better of Russian mobsters. Brock Wiggins played his son Michael with spot-on doofusness as though he were a cousin to Beavis and Butt-Head.
As Matilda’s well-meaning but initially ineffective teacher Miss Honey, Vallot portrayed her with a touching kindness. Among the featured kids, stand-outs included the cake-eating Bruce of Matthew Pickrell, Cooper Aymond’s cute Nigel, and Cooper Digby as Tommy.
If Swamplight’s individual actors did well, this Matilda was at its best when the stage was filled with dancers and singers in such numbers as Bruce and When I Grow Up, among others. In a cast that includes a wide range of ages, the youngest among them (pre-teens I presume) truly impressed as they held their own alongside the older kids and adults, all strong performers.
The next Matilda, the Musical will be at Slidell Little Theatre, August 27-September 12 (https://www.slidelllittletheatre.org). If it’s as good (or better) than Swamplight’s Matilda, it will be a very enjoyable evening of theater indeed.
For more information about Swamplight Theatre and The Kay Butler Performing Arts Project, go to https://www.swamplight.org/
New Orleans’ theater community lost one of its most stalwart and beloved figures this week when Adella Gautier (1948-2021) succumbed to the cancer she had valiantly battled for the past 6 years.
Gautier was many things, but foremost an actress of the highest caliber. I first saw her in 2004’s 70, Girls, 70 about which I wrote “As two waitresses who join the thieving over-the-hill gang, Arvilla Riddick and Adella Gautier stole the show. If Riddick was more restrained than her partner in crime, she more than held her own as Gautier let loose with sassiness, brassiness and a booming but not too slick gospel voice. Their Coffee in a Cardboard Cup, a signature Kander & Ebb tune, brought down the house.”
In HouseWarming (2005) at the Anthony Bean Community Theater (ABCT) as Teedy the most outrageous and man-hungry of four sisters, yet ironically, perhaps the most well-adjusted one, “Gautier’s full-throttled performance was knowingly sexy without sinking into caricature.”
As the 285-year-old Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at ABCT in 2007, Gautier gave us “a woman who was by turns sly, forceful, serious, loving, determined and capable of forging a connection for her people back to Africa. Gautier, unselfconsciously plucking hairs from her chin, grounded her with an unwavering belief based more on common sense than in anything mystical.”
And about Pearl Cleage’s Bourbon at the Border in 2009 I wrote, “It would be hard to imagine more natural actresses than Gautier and Latricia Huston, as her best friend; their excellent performances, Gautier’s steadiness playing off of Huston’s piquancy, were a joy to watch.”
For each of these roles, Gautier was nominated for an Ambie Award, demonstrating the range of her talents by getting a nod in three different categories (Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Play and, for the last two, Best Actress in a Play).
A mere two months ago, Gautier gave her final memorable performance at Michael Martin’s memorial tribute when she tore down the house at the AllWays Lounge & Cabaret with a recreation of her Verbatim Verboten reading as Louis Armstrong.
I just so regret not seeing her and Martin’s gender-swapped version of Driving Miss Daisy which was unfortunately shuttered after its opening night by the Covid pandemic.
Gautier was perhaps best known, however, for her alter ego “Adella Adella the Storyteller” who spun folk tales to the delight of children of all ages. I often would go see her at Jazzfest where she would have everyone in the Kids Tent enthralled by her beguiling stories. What a joy it was to sometimes see shy kids go up on stage–in addition to those who eagerly went–and blossom into smiling confederates in the warm presence of Gautier.
For the past few years, I had the pleasure of serving with Gautier as members of the Big Easy Theater Committee. I marveled at her dedication as she would attend our annual meetings, sometimes noticeably frail and using a cane after chemo treatments, yet never letting her illness get in the way of her commitment to helping to acknowledge her fellow theater artists.
Whenever I would see Gautier, whether on the grounds of Jazzfest after her own set, at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center’s annual luncheon or at the screening of a movie directed by a friend, she always had a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her face. She will be greatly missed.
Deepest condolences to her daughters Amber Zu-Johnson and Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Tiffany Gautier Chase, and her entire family.
As usual, August is a relatively quiet month for theater but, in addition to Slidell Little Theatre’s upcoming Matilda, the Musical, two other shows will soon be on the boards.
On August 17, José Torres-Tama & ArteFuturo Productions will present Teatro Sin Fronteras, a Latin Late Night Live Show at Café Istanbul (2372 St. Claude Ave.) which employs the talk show format, but with a socially conscious and arts driven thematic thrust. Hosted by well-known performance artist/poet Torres-Tama, the evening will feature Latin artists, activists, musicians, and poets as well as interviews with New Orleans’ Latin creatives and Black cultural bearers.
Guests on this month’s show, subtitled “Remembering Katrina @ 16″, will be musical tango duo Gauchos Del Tango; Martha Alguera, Director of Voces Unidas and the Immigrants’ Rights Coalition; choreographer/dancer Maritza Mercado-Narcisse; Tania Maria Vidal, Arts Curator of the New LATINE art exhibition; and poet/playwright A Scribe Called Quess. Raices, the evening’s house band, will perform Andean folk music.
Doors open at 6:30pm for the 7-8pm performance. A sliding scale of contributions, $5-$20, will be collected at the door which will go to help support the honorariums to the artists and musicians featured.
On the North Shore, 30 by Ninety Theatre (880 Lafayette St., Mandeville) presents Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent from August 28 through September 19.
Based loosely on Puccini’s La bohème, Rent follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in NYC’s East Village, in the shadow of HIV/AIDS before it was a manageable condition. Twenty-five years after its premiere, long after the streets where it takes placed have been tamed and gentrified, Rent can feel a bit like a historical piece yet the passions of the young bohemians, as they negotiate their dreams, loves and conflicts, remain timeless in this groundbreaking musical.
For more information and to purchase tickets, go to https://ci.ovationtix.com/35711/production/1070145