KID PLAY – A REVIEW OF ‘MATILDA JR.!’
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
Joshua Hauck, who will be a seventh grader at Freeman Academy this fall, stepped to the front of the stage for his big moment.
His character, Bruce Bogtrotter, was breaking the fourth wall (the imaginary boundary that separates the actors from the audience) with the following confession:
It was he, not Matilda as Miss Trunchbull suspected, who had stolen the headmistresses’ private piece of cake from her tea tray that morning.
“And honestly I was really, definitely, sort of almost thinking about owning up … maybe?” Bruce tells the audience. “But I was having a lot of trouble with my belly. The Trunchbull’s cake was so good that I’d scoffed it down too quick and now it was beginning to fight back.”
In short order, Bruce was forced by Trunchbull to eat the rest of her chocolate cake as punishment, and a little later in the show, during the showstopper “Revolting Children” in which the kids take back control of their lives, Hauck was at center stage again punctuating the song with “Revolting times! Songs! Rhymes!” before breaking out in a freeing “Woah, oh, oh … down, down, down, down” that leads into the final “We are revolting!”
There’s no telling what kind of impact playing the part of Bruce on the Pioneer Hall stage — especially during the apex of the Freeman Area Children’s Choir’s performance of “Matilda Jr.!” — will have on Joshua Hauck and his relationship with the performing arts, but it’s sure to leave a mark.
How could it not?
For two hours on Sunday night, June 25, Joshua and 31 other members of the “Matilda Jr.!” cast were stars of their world — gift-givers offering a delighted audience something they would not have otherwise experienced. Even if the show had been lousy, the experience of preparing and presenting a musical is something these boys and girls will probably remember for the rest of their lives. The fact that it was so well done takes it to a whole new level.
What will the after-effects be for Joshua Hauck?
Or for Ella Lewter, the incoming fourth grader at Freeman Public who struck the perfect balance between darling and mischievous in the part of Matilda?
Or for Jocelyn Lee, who will be a freshman at Freeman Public and who owned the stage as Miss Trunchbull using raw energy and immense natural talent best showcased in her spotlight song, “The Smell of Rebellion.”
Or for Charli Fickbohm, the niece of Iwona Lewter, who will be an eighth grader at Patrick Henry in Sioux Falls and who played the part of Miss Honey with sweet but meek conviction, which are also the characteristics brought by Arianne Fink, who will be a freshman at Freeman Academy, in her role as Miss Phelps, the librarian.
Jax Kaufman, who will be an eighth grader at Freeman Academy in fall, will never forget the time he played the part of Mr. Wormwood, the growly patriarch who wore green hair and a stuck-on hat courtesy of tricks played by his daughter, Matilda, who he insists on calling “boy” throughout the show and whose deadpan delivery worked to perfection.
Nor will Harli Ross, a freshman-to-be at Marion, ever forget playing the conceded and vain Mrs. Wormwood, and doing so with a subtle but convincing delivery typically found in actors far more seasoned.
Across the board, between the outstanding costuming, terrific vocal work, and raw innocence of child actors — most of whom were taking the stage for the first time in their young lives — the FACC production of “Matilda Jr.!” was as sweet as theater comes.
Behind it all were directors Amber Bradley (musical) and Iwona Lewter (artistic), whose decision to stage the story of Matilda made popular by Roald Dahl’s children’s novel was a brave one. This was not an easy show to prepare, particularly in the two-week window with which they had to work. The nature of “Matilda Jr.!” is in and of itself a challenge because of its demanding vocals, multiple location changes and the number of moving parts that included choreography prepared by Kathryn Rose Reimler (a familiar name around here thanks to her association with Schmeckfest musicals). But for every blackout-turned-new scene, the kids were in position and ready to go, with the tech on point to match.
The fact that the directors could squeeze every ounce of energy out of their cast members and deliver a quality show well beyond the years or experience of those on stage speaks to:
1. How gifted they are as leaders;
2. Their level of demand;
3. How much respect they earned from the kids.
It was obvious everybody was having the time of their lives up there, particularly in the hallmark chorus number “When I Grow Up” — which used push scooters rather than swings seen in the adult version to establish movement — and the coming-of-age romp, “Revolting Children.” Theater is best when it can be felt, and those chorus numbers certainly checked that box.
But so did the quieter moments, especially Miss Honey’s “This Little Girl” and Matilda’s “Quiet,” both performed with immense delicacy by first cousins Charli Fickbohm and Ella Lewter. Their sweetness in those moments seeped into every crack of the nearly 75-year-old Pioneer Hall with fresh newness for what feels like a new time.
It was pure magic.
When Bradley and Lewter re-established the Freeman Area Children’s Choir last summer with guidance and support from community members who wanted to see it return, there were two initial orders of business to get momentum going. The first was a concert in November that would signal its return, and the second was the summer musical theater camp and performance that has now come and gone.
That both were such a success means a new era of a fine arts focus for area children that will have immeasurable impact down the road and be of tremendous value for kids like all those both mentioned and not mentioned in this writing.
Not to paint everybody with the same brush, but musical theater kids are often cut from a different kind of cloth. There is an eccentricity and creative component that makes them want to express themselves in a way that others do not, but isn’t always valued by their peers, and that can be hard.
“Matilda Jr.!” proved that there is a place for those theatrical tendencies to be both nurtured and celebrated here in the larger Freeman community — a gift for both those who give and those who receive.
I, for one, cannot wait to see what some of these kids do next.
One of the schoolchildren played by Emmit Ortman rides a scooter in “When I Grow Up,” one of the signature songs in the “Matilda” musical franchise. Ortman was one of the 32 students in grades 4-8 to take the stage in Sunday’s performance in Pioneer Hall by the Freeman Area Children’s Choir.