‘Matilda the Musical’ is a small miracle at Theatre@CBT

The remarkable children’s chorus put on a show with exactness and enthusiasm.

In nearly a decade that it has been mounting musicals, Theatre@CBT has grown from an opportunity for children and parents at the synagogue Congregation B’Nai Tzedek to enjoy putting on a show together, to a firm fixture of the Maryland theater community. They are still having fun, but as the productions have progressed, the quality has consistently improved.

All of this was in evidence the weekend of February 17 when the company finished their ninth season with Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. The show, with lyrics and music by Tim Minchin, was born at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 and transferred to Broadway in 2013. It is still running in London.

Lila Mosier as Matilda in Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda the Musical.’ Photo by Paul Linseisen.

Mounting Matilda is no mean feat. In fact, for an amateur company, it can be considered, to quote the opening song, something of a “Miracle.” The lyrics, while delightful, are devilishly difficult, including one number called “School Song” in which each line turns on a word or syllable that is a sequential letter of the alphabet. The rhythms are just as tricky. And to top it off, the show relies on a panoply of accents, from various types of British to Russian.

As is usually the case in a Roald Dahl story, the adults are either unspeakably evil or angelic. The former were well represented in CBT’s show by Matilda’s ghastly parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Michael Abendshein and Lauren-Nicole Gabel), and the even more horrible Headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull (Alissa Margolis). Abendshein had great fun with his role, although his accent came and went, showing up most dependably in his rollicking Act 2 opener “All I Know (I Learned from Telly).” Gabel’s accent was more reliable for Matilda’s trashy mum, although she would have been even better had the belty parts of her big song “Loud” been even more, well, loud. Still, accompanied by her dance partner Rudolpho (the exquisitely silly Rob Milanic), she made comic gold of her part.

Margolis had big shoes to fill as the nasty, child-hating Miss Trunchbull, a part that is usually played in the stage productions by a man in drag. She made the part her own, using the full range of her powerful voice to rule over such numbers as “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion.” She was utterly terrifying and despicable, which made her ultimate defeat all the more satisfying.

Other adults were sweeter. The Escapologist (Bob Bryant) and the Acrobat (Honey Cohen) had beautiful voices to carry their fairy-tale-noble characters. The Doctor (Michael Chernoff) had the powerful pipes needed to go up against a whole chorus of children in the opening number. Sergei, the improbably understanding Russian mobster (Jeff Breslow), also had a strong voice to go with his amusing accent. Mrs. Phelps (Coleen Williams) made a suitably enthusiastic audience for Matilda’s stories. And the angelic Miss Honey (Michelle Hessel), the beleaguered teacher who helps Matilda and is saved by her in turn, was every bit as lovely, in voice and manner, as the part required.

But above all, this show depends on its cast of kids. The children’s chorus in Matilda have their work cut out for them, having to deal with complex harmonies, fiendish lyrics, English accents, and above all, precise diction to make all this intelligible. In this, too, CBT’s production did not disappoint with its children’s chorus: Sari Gabel (special shout out as the unbeatable Bruce), Amelia Stickle, Grace Hamer, Danielle Yunes, Hannah Chernoff, Jackie Williams, Jessa Gabel, Nadia Farber, Rebecca Brophy, Sadie Cohen, Mackenzie Efrom, Sabrina Williams, Talia Bender, Adriana Cogliani, Adina Freiman, Natalie Friedman, Shira Kerchner, Alexandra Lipworth, Emma Lipworth, Jordanna Maarec, Aya Miller, and Mai Miller. A close look will show that most of these children are indeed family of other cast members. It is remarkable that such exactness and enthusiasm could come together from such a large group (22!) of neighborhood kids getting together to put on a show. But this is what CBT has become known for.

TOP: The chorus of kids in Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda the Musical’; ABOVE: The entire cast. Photos by Paul Linseisen.

Ultimately, the show rests on the small shoulders of one little girl: Matilda, who was played by Laila Yunes at the evening show, Lila Mosier at the matinee. Both girls are sixth-graders at Cabin John Middle School and have been in Theatre@CBT productions before, so they are home-grown talent. Yunes played the part the night we saw it, and was onstage for almost the entire show, singing lead in six of the numbers. Although she seemed a little stiff at the start, she soon began to embody the role more naturally. Her voice and her accent were spot-on. It is a remarkably demanding role; kudos to these two little girls for carrying it off.

Of course, the greatest kudos here go to the production team that managed to bring all these moving parts together, especially Director Kevin Sockwell. Sockwell has helmed numerous Theatre@CBT productions, and it is nothing short of miraculous that he managed to herd scores of large and small actors through schedule conflicts and illnesses, sometimes not having them all together at once until dress rehearsals began, and produced something so coherent. He was ably aided by Assistant Director Wendy Stickle and Child Wrangler Honey Cohen (a crucial job in a production like this). Choreographer Richelle “Rikki” Howie expertly got the children to dance in sync at times and found multiple things for all of them to do at others, such as playing with bubbles and toys or performing calisthenics. Dialect Coach Pauline Griller-Mitchell and Sound Engineer Matthew Datcher made the songs as intelligible as possible, although the lyrics and accents inevitably obscured some words. (This was even true of the Broadway production.) It is interesting to note that the accents were clearest and most consistent on the numbers where the cast album was available as a model — nothing wrong with making use of all available resources. Music Director Sam Weich’s ability to teach the very tricky rhythms and gorgeous harmonies made the score shine, especially in the lovely and moving anthem, “When I Grow Up.”

The team achieved all this despite the lack of complex special effects, a conventional stage, or theatrical lighting, and with a show run of only two days. It would be intriguing to see what this group might pull off with more tech and a longer run.

The night we saw the show, the CBT sanctuary was brimming and buzzing not only with parents, family, and members of the synagogue but with local thespians there to see their comrades perform. It is marvelous that the two goals of community theater, getting together to have fun with friends and putting on a truly terrific show, blend so beautifully in Theatre@CBT. Here’s looking forward to decades to come.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical played on February 17 and 18, 2024, presented by Theatre@CBT performing at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, 10621 South Glen Road, Potomac, MD. Information on future productions is available on the web or on Facebook.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical
Book by Dennis Kelly
Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past [mumble] decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters, and programs, and generally theatrically meddled on several continents. She has made a specialty of playing old bats — no, make that “mature, empowered women” — including Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest (twice); Mama Rose in Gypsy and the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd — when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.”) She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easygoing. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies. Most recently, she directed, costumed, and designed and painted the set for Rockville Little Theatre’s She Stoops to Conquer, for which she won the WATCH Award for Outstanding Set Painting. In real life, she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.


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