Roald Dahl, author of the much loved 1988 childrens novel Matilda, once described the book's character Miss Trunchbull as "a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike." The story's current incarnation, "Matilda the Musical," now in residence at the Ahmanson Theater, features Broadway veteran Bryce Ryness as the evil, sadistic Trunchbull, headmistress of the school Matilda's ridiculously boorish parents force her to attend. He nearly steals the show.
Originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Tony-winning musical about a precocious 5-year-old who loves to read, possesses magical powers and manages to triumph over family adversity is at the beginning of a national tour. The cast includes Jennifer Blood as Miss Honey, Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfield as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, and Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness, and Mabel Tyler alternating in the role of Matilda.
This was my second viewing (I saw it on Broadway two years ago) and while the story and music are engaging as ever, this time it was Ryness's subtle, droll take on the almost cartoon-like Trunchbull that held my focus. In the film version the role is played by a woman, but in the musical Trunchbull is played by a male actor in drag. While it would be hard for the tall and gangly Ryness not to attract attention while wearing womens' clothes, he completely makes the role his own. No small achievement considering the show has been running in London and New York since 2011.
During a recent backstage chat at the Ahmanson, Ryness (as charming and self-deprecating as Miss Trunchbull is horrible) admitted that the path to being cast was less than smooth. "I had a really hard time getting seen for this," he said. "My agents were pushing, pushing, pushing — and the casting powers that be were saying, 'uh, we don't really see it with him.'"
The prospect of taking on such a high-profile role that another actor had been identified with (British actor Bertie Carvel played the role in London and on Broadway) didn't intimidate or influence Ryness. He had never actually seen the show, and when he finally did audition he approached it as "a challenge, like an acting class scene that gets handed out to you. In that position of being the underdog, I was in a situation where I kind of had nothing to lose, no grand expectations as to what I was going to deliver when I walked into the room.
"I really like being in that position of surprising people, of exceeding their expectations. I did what I thought would be the most fun with it and it just so happens it was exactly what they were looking for."
Ryness, 34, grew up in Northern California and discovered his love of singing as many do, in his high school choir. Seriously involved in sports, he was forced to put his game of choice, baseball, aside when his thumb was injured. "I couldn't play and thought, 'what else is going on in my life? So much of my identity was wrapped up in baseball. Who am I?' Singing helped me establish an identity." While a business major at USC he joined an a capella group and met his wife Meredith, also a singer. After graduation he sang with a group at Disney's California Adventure and performed in local theater productions. A big break was being cast in the national tour of "Rent" in 2006.
Ryness realized that he needed to be in New York to further his theater career and moved there with Meredith when his time with "Rent" was completed. The cost of living was a rude awakening for the young couple. "We rolled into New York with $10,000. Cut to three months later and we were sweating. In New York you walk out your door and $20 falls out of your pocket," he recalls. Things got scary but they hung in and Ryness got his first Broadway show ("Legally Blonde") in 2007 and has worked steadily since, including appearing in the 2009 Broadway revival of "Hair," and the original production of "First Date" in 2013.
Before committing to the Matilda tour, Ryness made certain conditions clear to the producers. Now a very proud father of three young children, he requested that his family be able to join him for as much of his six-month run as possible. "It was a deal-breaker for me," he says. "They're all here and that's why it worked, because we could all go together." While in Los Angeles they are staying in Atwater Village, near his brother. The daily routine is as close to family friendly as it gets for a working actor. He has most of the day free to spend with his kids, and at 6:30 "dad gets into the car and goes to the theater." Recently the family, along with a big group from the Matilda production, went to Dodger Stadium when Ryness was invited to sing the national anthem.
In mid-July the show will move on to San Francisco (and after that to a slew of cities too numerous to mention.). It sounds grueling, but at least Ryness will have his family with him most of the time. It doesn't hurt that he holds the material in high regard. "This piece is just so well written, so well constructed. The songs are so intelligent -- very intelligent songs about a simple subject which creates almost a universal accessibility."
Production photos from Center Theatre Group:
Related nugget: Ryness' brother is Gar Ryness, better known on YouTube as Batting Stance Guy.