November 15, 2023
Porthole Players, a local theater organization, has been presenting a wide variety of stage performances since 1972, but now is planning a big comeback this fall with Roald Dahl’s “Matilda the Musical.”
The lead character of Matilda will be played by Aria Ferne Dennett, a fourth grader at Pacific Northwest Coastal Academy. The show will open on the Alice Silverman Stage at the Newport Performing Arts Center on Friday, Nov. 17, and will run for three weekends, with Friday and Saturday shows at 7 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Although Porthole did manage some lighter theater fare during the pandemic, Matilda will be the first large-scale musical with children and adults treading the boards together to sing and dance their way into your hearts since 2019. Matilda the Musical has received widespread critical acclaim and box-office popularity, winning seven 2012 Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical, and five Tony awards in 2013, including the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Dennis Kelly. A movie released last year starring Emma Thompson brought the juvenile novel Matilda, written by Roald Dahl in 1988, to the forefront even more.
Jennifer Van Bruggen Hamilton is directing the lively cast along with Brad Capshaw conducting the live orchestra. Calling cues from backstage is stage manager Linda Capshaw. Sarah Gibbs is leading the vocal rehearsals of music written by award-winning composer Tim Minchin. Anna Zimmerman is the lead dance choreographer for spunky ensemble numbers like “Miracle,” where every child believes they are special. Another power hitting song, “Revolting Children,” is brought to life by the entire ensemble of little and big kids, where dismissed students regain their confidence under the influence of Matilda by standing up to the school bully, who happens to be the head mistress, Miss Trunchbull. The wickedly smart and wildly funny character of Trunchbull will be acted by veteran principal actor Marc Montminy.
Matilda’s inattentive and obnoxiously loud parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, are portrayed by talented and comedic actors Morgan Locklear and Gidget Manucci Ashley. Anna Hart serves the role of Miss Honey with sincere sweetness, earning her way into Matilda’s heart. Another character in the story to shepherd the neglected Matilda is Miss Phelps, the eccentric librarian, played by Jennifer Chaney. A large cast of talented Lincoln County children and adults bring the musical adaptation to life.
Costume Designer for Porthole Players’ Matilda is Rebeccah Sorensen, who will bring bright color and charm to the dark school grounds of the stylized set, designed by builder and part-time actor Gary Herd. Many local volunteers spend hundreds of hours behind the scenes creating props and painting scenery, including Cassandra Fix ,who joined this production of Matilda as properties mistress. Lights and sound by Huck Lewis and Jason Vorderbrueggen round out the theatrical attributes that bring together an entertaining show centered on strained family ties, the love of reading, and a little bit of naughty magic.
The 45-year-old community theater emerges from the pandemic shutdown with its first full-scale musical since 2019 and a new focus on fundraising and drawing fresh, young faces.
November 15. 2023 Lori Tobias
This month, Porthole Players will stage its first large-scale musical since 2019 with the performance of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. The show not only marks a comeback of sorts for the 45-year-old Porthole Players, but also a fresh start as the Newport board looks at ways to breathe new energy into what some feared was a dying company.
“Porthole Players is essentially going to really examine its roots of community, community, community,” said Morgan Locklear, president of the board of directors and member of the company since the 1980s. “The future will be about finding more people who want to get involved and bringing the most popular musicals to the stage. Our 50th anniversary in 2028 is going to see a company ready for another 50 years, with a resident improv group, and even classes in acting, directing, and everything in between.”
Porthole Players staged its first performance in 1972, became an official nonprofit in 1978, and 10 years later became the first theater company to perform in the then-new Newport Performing Arts Center. The company was the first of the “PAC rats,” the pet name for resident companies, which today number nine.
The company’s focus has always been about family-centered, musical-centered entertainment, said Jennifer Chaney, one of about 40 theater company members honored with lifetime memberships. “I got involved in about 2000. I was about 20 years younger than the folks who were really involved then. They mentored me. But some of the old guard have passed and I’ve seen Porthole Players really struggling. I feel like I am carrying their energy on my shoulders.”
The last full musical, Man of La Mancha, was presented in 2019. The company staged a comedy improv show last year, but it didn’t sell, largely because everyone was still in COVID mode, Chaney said. “There were hyper-vigilant folks on the board who would make plans and change plans. It’s been touch and go.”
The Newport company is not alone. As a longtime member of the Oregon Community Theatre Alliance, Chaney said she has seen other companies around the state face similar issues.
“Everyone involved in community theater since the pandemic is thriving or dying on the vine,” she said. “It’s so sad to see.”
But the Newport Performing Arts Center has seen some encouraging numbers, Jason Holland, director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, said.
“We’re really seeing audiences growing,” Holland said. From 2022 to the end of this year, he said, center audiences have grown by 80 percent and the number of events has increased by 30 percent. “That’s really encouraging. It’s indicative of what an arts-loving community we are in. Porthole Players has been an integral part of that from the beginning.”
And while the company has struggled, prudent spending by past boards has left it with a nest egg of $40,000.
“The wonderful part is they still had those funds which were built years ago,” Chaney said. “My blood, sweat, and tears were in those funds. I knew we needed to get the ball rolling.”
The critically acclaimed Matilda the Musical is set to open Friday and run Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through Dec. 3 in the Alice Silverman Theatre at the Newport Performing Arts Center. Fourth-grader Aria Ferne Dennett will star as Matilda, alongside Locklear, who was cast as her father, Mr. Wormwood.
Locklear’s history with the company dates from childhood, when he performed his first role, Kurt in The Sound of Music, in 1980. He’s been involved in theater ever since. “Porthole Players raised me,” Locklear said. “The thing I really respected about Porthole from the beginning was that children in a cast have the same responsibilities as adults. They had to learn their dances, their lines, their cues, all of that stuff, and therefore were treated like adults. That was really valuable to me as a kid who related more to adults.”
In recent years, Locklear has been involved in backstage roles — sound engineer, stage manager, director. He ended up cast as Mr. Wormwood by a bit of chance.
“I was simply helping out with the auditions, helping the people in the lobby get organized — you know, setting the tables, just trying to help out as a good president should,” Locklear said. “We ran out of male auditioners, and the director, Jennifer Hamilton, still had several roles to fill. She needed a guy to grow a thin mustache and be a mean dad, and that’s me. I jumped up on stage and sang a song and almost immediately she cast me.”
Mr. Wormwood aside, Locklear’s primary role these days is off stage, ensuring Porthole is around long into the future. That will take a change in the company’s mindset, Locklear said.
“What I’m quite fond of saying to my board is that Porthole can no longer do plays to make money. We have to make money, so we can do plays.”
And while the banked $40,000 may have helped Porthole through the dry COVID years, it won’t last long. The rights alone to stage Matilda the Musical cost $7,500, Locklear said.
He said the company plans to establish a wing of the board and a special director to be in charge of fundraising, independent the plays chosen for performance. “We absolutely are now in a position where fundraising has to be a part of the conversation; we can’t do only with the revenue we get from plays. It will have to be a permanent part of how we govern ourselves and run our company.”
Locklear also plans to focus on attracting fresh faces to contribute in myriad roles. He is directing a play in January that will include a new stage manager and assistant director, both of whom will have the opportunity, once they’ve “jumped through the proper hoops,” to pitch their own shows to the company, Locklear said.
“The entire artistic community is running on an old guard right now, and we’re really hoping to entice young people,” he said. “We have four years until our 50th anniversary and I hope to just basically do a great big rebranding, and building up all the people and all the money that it takes to keep Porthole going into the next 50 years.”
By BARBARA B. COVELL
NEWPORT — It’s an age-old story with a modern-day twist.
“Matilda: the Musical,” opening Friday, Nov. 17 and running through Dec. 3 at the Newport Performing Arts Center, is a story about an extraordinary little girl who overcomes multiple obstacles to instill hope and confidence in her classmates as well as the kind adults in her life.
Along the way, she discovers she has magical powers and uses them in a delightfully wicked manner to teach her unloving, critical parents and cruel headmistress a few good lessons.
Adapted from Roald Dahl’s novel “Matilda,” the show combines powerful musical numbers by Tim Minchin with Dennis Kelly’s powerhouse script, written in a book format.
Jennifer Van Bruggen Hamilton is making her directorial debut with Porthole Players after serving more than a decade with the Topeka Civic Theatre and Academy in Topeka, Kan.
“I wanted to do a show with youth and adults,” she said. “I thought this is one that Lincoln County would want to see. I believe theater is therapeutic, especially for kids. It gets them off of their screens and working together toward a common goal. My greatest joy is watching the kids enjoy themselves.”
The story is told by a cast of 27 adults and children who will sing and dance their way into the hearts of appreciative audiences. Hamilton said that more than half of the cast are under the age of 18. She is also using youth crew backstage.
Aria Ferne Dennett, a fourth-grade student at Pacific Northwest Coastal Academy, plays the title role. In contrast to Matilda’s powers of psychokinesis, her love of reading, vivid imagination and spunky personality are her parents — Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. The Wormwoods are self-absorbed, inattentive and critical of Matilda. Her father wishes she were a boy. Veteran actors Morgan Locklear and Gidget Manucci Ashley carry these roles beautifully, showing disdain for Matilda’s intelligence as well as her ability to thrive under trying circumstances.
“Mr. Wormwood is an imbecile,” Locklear said. “He is mean to his daughter and ridicules her for being educated. The Wormwoods drive Matilda to escape into stories with happier endings.”
The kind and positive influences in Matilda’s life are her teacher, Miss Honey, and librarian, Mrs. Phelps. Miss Honey is played by Anna Hart, who earns her way into Matilda’s heart with sincere sweetness and encouragement. Jennifer Cheney is cast as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who shepherds the neglected girl and inspires her to shine.
The tyrannical headmistress of Matilda’s school is portrayed by Marc Montminy, who gives an exemplary performance as the punitive, child-hating bully, Miss Trunchbull.
“I was very lucky to get the perfect people for these roles,” Hamilton said. “The actors playing them are very talented and experienced.”
It is a marvel to see this large cast of Lincoln County children and adults sing, dance and carry such a multifaceted storyline.
Music director Brad Capshaw leads an orchestra that creates the magical music. There are 13 songs in each act, a monumental task for the musicians and the actors. Of special note are the energized ensemble performances of “Miracle,” “The Chokey Chant” and “Revolting Children.”
The many behind-the-scenes credits include Sarah Gibbs as vocal coach, Anna Zimmerman as choreographer, Linda Capshaw as stage manager, Gary Herd as set designer, Rebecca Sorensen as costume designer, Cassandra Fix as props person and Huck Lewis and Jason Vorderbrueggen in lights and sound. The talented actors, crew and local volunteers donated hundreds of hours to create an entertaining show about strained family ties, the love of reading, and a bit of naughty magic.
“It will be a fun evening to escape into the world of Matilda,” Hamilton said. “The audience is the final piece of the puzzle. I think they will soak up the energy and joy from everyone onstage. It’s a beautiful, organic exchange every night as the show and audience are different.”
“The message is definitely about reading and how it can be a fast track to empathy and intelligence,” Locklear added. “And I predict the biggest takeaway will be about the clever and memorable songs. It’s a big, bold show that has many laughs and moments of poignant reflection. In other words, the perfect play.”
Children appearing in “Matilda the Musical” are: Maximillion Mueller (front row-left), Junie Jones, Aria Ferne Dennett, Parker Eisenbarth, Olive Jones, Michael Oliver, and Ella Marrant; Taylor Hiner (back row-left), Giovanni Duncan, Zoie Evans, Kacey Bauman, Collin Stewart, Eden Bailey, and Dyllan Warden.
Porthole Players presents the final weekend of performances of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda the Musical” this weekend on the Alice Silverman stage at the Newport Performing Arts Center. Performances are at 7 p.m. today (Friday) and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Based on the 1988 novel “Matilda,” by Roald Dahl, the spunky musical was first performed in 2010 by the Royal Shakespeare Company and had a successful run on London’s West End for the past 12 years. The script was written by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.
This Newport production is directed by Jennifer Van Bruggen Hamilton and a team of community designers and artists. Live musical orchestration is conducted by Brad Capshaw.
Playing the lead role of Matilda is 9-year-old Aria Ferne Dennett in her first community theater production. She is a fourth grader at Pacific Northwest Coastal Academy who loves math, reading, and theater. She began performing at age 7 as Gertrude McFuzz in “Suessical Jr.” and as Davey in “Newsies, Jr.” through the Newport Performing Arts Center summer theater camps.
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