The ensemble of Theatre Under the Stars’ The Prom has energy and talent. Jewish community member Cadence Rush Quibell is third from the right. (Emily Cooper Photography)
This summer, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) has brought two stories of individuality and bravery to Stanley Park – The Prom, which opened July 11, and Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical, which opened the following night. Both opening night shows began with a welcome chant from members of the Coast Salish people, who explained the Indigenous history of the park.
At the opening of Matilda, there was hardly an empty seat.
“My mummy says I’m a miracle,” sang the chorus of bright-eyed children as the curtains rose. It is soon revealed that the parents of the show’s heroine – gifted 5-year-old Matilda – do not share this feeling. Matilda’s mother even calls the day of her child’s birth the worst day of her life.
The story follows Matilda’s struggle to embrace her intelligence and natural courage, despite her crude, TV-obsessed parents, who constantly put her down. She begins to find her place at her school, whose motto is “children are maggots,” pushing past the frightening Miss Trunchbull and towards her personal solace of literature and imaginative storytelling.
Matilda seamlessly conveys its titular character’s frustration and joy. Notably, the set consisting of huge books is a clever signal of the constant comfort Matilda finds in books, and how storytelling is what ultimately leads her to a happy ending.
The show’s energetic ensemble executes intricate choreography and vocals with ease. The ensemble is united and contains an array of younger and older performers, which comes in handy to tell the story of “When I Grow Up.”
Siggi Kaldestad brings talent beyond her years to the role of Matilda, providing a solid and confident backbone for the entire production. Kaldestad is a triple threat, and her sweet yet dynamic performance of “Naughty” offers the proof. Paula Higgins, playing the angel-esque teacher, Miss Honey, brought lovely vocals to the character’s journey of self-confidence and connection. Another standout was Jyla Robinson playing Miss Trunchbull – her physical comedy and terrifying demeanour served well in bringing the famously nasty character to life.
While the narrative of Matilda largely centres around its main character, it truly was an ensemble production, where many supporting characters shone. This was also true for TUTS’s production of The Prom.
The Prom opens on the failing careers of four eccentric, selfish Broadway actors – Dee Dee Allen (Caitriona Murphy), Barry Glickman (Greg Armstrong-Morris), Angie Dickinson (Amanda Lourenco) and Trent Oliver (Matthew Valinho). Seeking a cause that will allow them to regain relevance, they choose to help Emma, a lesbian student in Edgewater, Ind., take her girlfriend to prom, despite the parent-teacher association having canceled prom to prevent that from happening. Emma is under scrutiny in her town of apparent homophobes – the worst being the unsuspecting mother of her girlfriend – and the crew of Broadway has-beens is determined to spread tolerance to people they view as closed-minded hicks and come out as heroes. Chaos follows, yet so do lessons of acceptance and generosity.
Murphy and Armstrong-Morris are masterful performers with powerful stage presences who ably transform their characters from self-absorbed and out-of-touch to caring and relatable. Armstrong-Morris’s “Barry is Going to Prom” reveals intriguing dimensions to the well-established spunk of his character, and Murphy’s “It’s Not About Me” is a true showstopper. The power duo is joined by Lourenco’s Angie, who is classy and entertaining to watch, as well as Valinho’s hilarious and cheeky Trent Oliver.
These eccentric personalities are well-balanced by Anna Pontin’s earnest and mature portrayal of Emma. Pontin brings a warm vocal tone and a comfortable stage presence to this emotionally complex role. Emma’s love interest, Alyssa Greene, is brought to life with an equally beautiful voice and authenticity from Brianna Clark. Whether it’s Valihno’s standing back flip in “Love Thy Neighbour,” or Murphy’s soulful belt in “The Lady is Improving,” this cast truly shines.
The Prom’s ensemble has solid energy and talent, while sometimes wavering in transitions between scenes. It was wonderful to see Jewish community member Cadence Rush Quibell among them (jewishindependent.ca/finding-their-place-in-theatre). The choreography is upbeat and sincere, especially in the show’s finale, “It’s Time to Dance.” The script is hilarious, and its message is uplifting and heartwarming; it is clear that The Prom preaches inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community and beyond, welcoming anyone who seeks the courage to be themselves – similar to the messages of Matilda.
This season of TUTS allows young, local talents to shine, featuring many children and adolescent-age performers between the two productions. They should all be commended for the dedication and professionalism that is often clear in TUTS productions.
Both Matilda and The Prom drive the classic musical theatre message that no one is alone, even when the world appears to have turned its back. While Matilda is ignored by her parents, she connects with Miss Honey; while Emma is shunned by her town and family, she is embraced by the Broadway performers.
Further, both productions inspire embracing individuality in the face of judgment or constraints, whether it be ridiculous parents or the outdated beliefs of an entire community. The message that you can control your own story is entrenched in both productions. When the students revolt against Miss Trunchbull in the glorious “Revolting Children,” it is loud-and-proud self-determination. When Emma stands up for herself, it is a more subdued demonstration, yet no less genuine. Her intimate, acoustic guitar performance of “Unruly Heart” proves equally effective in allowing its heroine to regain control over her narrative.
Don’t miss The Prom and Matilda this summer. Visit tuts.ca for showtimes and tickets.
Alisa Bressler is a fourth-year student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. She is an avid reader and writer, and the online director of the arts and culture publication MUSE Magazine. Bressler is a member of the Vancouver Jewish community, and the inaugural Baila Lazarus Jewish Journalism Intern.