The magic returns as CHS stages ‘Matilda’ outdoors in South Orange

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Columbia High School was raring to go when its theater department sold out all of the tickets to the 2020 production of “Matilda,” even going so far as to add another show to what was supposed to be a two-weekend run. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and the show couldn’t.

“It was devastating,” co-director and choreographer Bethany Pettigrew said about Superintendent Ronald Taylor’s phone call last year telling her and co-director and choreographer Tricia Benn that the pandemic shutdown wouldn’t allow the musical to be staged.

But now “Matilda” is making its return to CHS, just not in the way it was originally envisioned; the show will be staged outside at Floods Hill in South Orange, on a temporary stage and with audience members sitting on their own lawn chairs and blankets. The cast has spent a year in lockdown and is ready to start singing and dancing again.

“It felt like unfinished business,” Alex Iozzio, who is playing the doctor, Rudolpho and a Big Kid in the show, said in an interview with the News-Record on June 4. “Thinking about what could have been has been tough. Now, we’re still getting some sense of closure.”

One group in the cast that really lost out on closure was the Class of 2020 seniors. Their last theater production was the first in a string of losses that included prom, graduation and other end-of-year senior activities. So when the production team got the ball rolling again on “Matilda,” they invited the Class of 2020 back to play the parts they never got to play. A handful of them, including Jake Slade, were able to do it.

“I don’t even go to this school,” Slade, who is playing Miss Trunchbull, joked in an interview with the News-Record on June 4. “I’m not really a crier, but when it got canceled there were definitely some tears. We put so much effort into it. I’m happy I ended up coming back; everything has been going well so far.”

The last rehearsal before the show was canceled in 2020 was filmed, but Bethany Pettigrew said that because of copyright licensing, the production team couldn’t release it for the public to see; the only people who know what CHS’ original production of “Matilda” was going to look like are the cast and crew. Audiences won’t see that version of the show this year because of the venue change.

“We’re finishing what we started in a way, but we’re building on it,” Katie Trzaska, playing the part of Amanda, said in an interview with the News-Record on June 4. “We’re seeing what more we can do. We can adapt and make changes.”

The outdoor stage is smaller than the stage in CHS’ auditorium and doesn’t have wings or curtains; cast members will have to stay in character while they’re offstage, because the audience can still see them. Some theater magic has been changed, too, because of the lack of lighting and technology. Set pieces have changed or been removed.

“You can see everything,” ensemble cast member Eloise Glantz said in an interview with the News-Record on June 4. “Offstage doesn’t exist. There’s also the element of surprise with weather. It makes it a whole new show.”

Baseball games are being played nearby in the park, cars are constantly driving by and the trains that run through the station add noise, so the acoustics aren’t exactly what the cast and musicians in the pit are used to rehearsing with. But no one seems to care.

“That’s what’s fun about it,” Trzaska said. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”

This isn’t the first time that a lot of “Matilda” cast members have performed since the pandemic started. CHS put on a virtual musical, with music that was performed in past CHS musicals. It is, however, the first time they’ve performed live in quite a while, and they’re discovering it’s not easy.

“It’s been great to see everyone and sing in person,” Grace Trenouth, who is in the ensemble and plays Miss Phelps, said in an interview with the News-Record on June 4. “This year has been crazy, and I realized I had to get back in shape. I forgot how hard it was to sing and dance. When you’re just sitting with a camera in front of you, it’s different.”

Another of the differences between the 2020 show and the 2021 show is that the cast members are older than they were when they started it and have been through a tumultuous time. They auditioned for “Matilda” more than a year and a half ago; students who were supposed to be sophomores performing in the show will be seniors this fall. Anna Pettigrew, a senior this year, is playing the title character and feels more comfortable in the role a year after the fact.

“It’s gotten easier,” she said in an interview with the News-Record on June 4. “This is the first time that any of us have performed in a long time, but everyone wants to be here. I can drop the ball on caring what other people think.”

However different the Floods Hill version looks from the original production, the cast knows that it’s a lot more than other high school theater students have gotten.

“I’m so grateful to be doing it at all,” Trzaska said. “So we might as well give it everything we have.”

“Matilda” will be performed from June 10 through June 13 at 6 p.m. at Floods Hill in South Orange, at 100 North Ridgewood Road. Audience members must bring their own blankets or low-backed beach chairs. Admission is free and open to the public, but donations are welcome to offset production costs, via cash and checks made payable to “CHS/Musical” at the show and by Venmo at “CHS-Musical-07040.”

Photos Courtesy of LuAnne Kleppe