By Donalevan Maines
A man who isn’t gay makes a scary-looking woman. To prove my point, you don’t have to wait until Halloween, when couch monkeys in the ’burbs will try to dress as Caitlyn Jenner (and most will look like Kim Davis).
A scary straight man in drag is as close as the Hobby Center early this month, where Bryce Ryness stars in the Tony Award-winning Matilda the Musical.
But don’t tell his character, the evil Miss Agatha Trunchbull, that she isn’t pretty, or she will put you in the Chokey. That’s a “punishment closet” at Crunchem Hall Primary School, where broken glass and nails await children who don’t adhere to the rules.
When Miss Trunchbull tries to drag Matilda to the Chokey, the five-year-old prodigy discovers she can move objects with her mind. (Yes, shades of Carrie.)
If you don’t know the children’s book that the musical is based on (or only know its author, Roald Dahl, because he married the late Oscar-winner Patricia Neal), you are not alone, Ryness admits. “My first actual long-form study of Matilda was when I read the script,” he says.
Ryness was more familiar with HIV/AIDS, although no expert, when he played Roger in a 2006 national tour of Rent. (Last month, Houston high school students performed the musical as the 12th production of the annual Summer Conservatory Program at Theatre Under the Stars.)
Growing up in the 1980s in Danville, California (about 30 miles from San Francisco), he says, “We were very aware of the AIDS epidemic [that was striking] the gay community. However, I felt personally removed from it in ‘suburbia.’ To this day, I don’t know anyone firsthand who suffered and died from the disease. I have not lost anyone close to me.”
Ryness is married to his college sweetheart, Meredith, whom he met at the University of Southern California, where he earned a business degree in entrepreneurial studies in 2002.
At USC, Ryness took a musical theater performance workshop as an elective and performed in a pop/rock singing group called the SoCal VoCals. Performing was “just one line on my résumé,” he says, when he accompanied a friend to an audition for Annie in Lamanda Park, California, and landed a month-long contract as “the third guy from the left.”
From those “humble beginnings,” and thanks to some “slow on-the-job training,” Ryness and his wife packed up and moved to New York City, where he was cast on Broadway in Hair, Leap of Faith, Legally Blonde, and First Date.
Houston out couple David Romero and David Greiss sponsored this summer’s TUTS Underground production of First Date. “We were excited to support TUTS Underground as it continues to grow and bring new musicals to Houston audiences,” says Romero.
“First Date was a fun evening that brought back all the fond and scary memories of going out on a blind date,” adds Greiss.
“I would do First Date again in a heartbeat,” says Ryness.
Touring in Matilda, with his wife and three children under the age of six, Ryness says they look like “a veritable traveling circus.”
Auditioning for Matilda might have felt like trying out for a circus, as the audition required dancing, strength and conditioning exercises, and gym practice to jump off a trampoline. Ryness also had to perform a front somersault over a pummel horse and then land on a crash mat. When Miss Trunchbull does that in Matilda, says Ryness, “That’s not an illusion. Five, six, seven, eight.”
The child actors in Matilda display their athleticism in the production number “Revolting Children,” which shoots the middle finger at Miss Trunchbull’s disdain for little people.
Ryness explains that Miss Trunchbull’s insistence on strict discipline was born in her youth. “The backstory I was handed is that she came from a circus family, but she had no circus ability,” he says. “Her sister was a beautiful acrobat, while she was a large woman who was constantly marginalized.”
Turns out that Agatha was good at the hammer throw—so good, in fact, that she became an Olympic champion. “She got a job as the physical education teacher at Crunchem Hall, then became headmistress through hard work and dedication,” says Ryness. “She believes that children suffer from a lack of discipline, and her job allows her to pick on them.”
Her big mistake is picking on Matilda, a child prodigy who has been mistreated from the time her deadbeat father, Mr. Wormwood, dismissed her as “an ugly little thing” because he wanted another son rather than a daughter.
Her parents are totally oblivious to what a wonderful child she is, so she finds solace in reading, chatting with the librarian, and bonding with her sweet school teacher, Miss Honey.
“The appeal of the show is that it is a true underdog story. In America, we really like rooting for the underdog,” says Ryness.
On Broadway, Matilda was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2013, but lost to the Kinky Boots juggernaut. As Miss Trunchbull, British actor Bertie Carvel was a Tony nominee after winning London theater’s Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.