Celebrated Coleman musical director returns to helm Matilda

Lisë Hopson (photo by Phyllis McCabe)

This Friday, April 5, John A. Coleman Catholic High School will open their production of Matilda, a musical based on the novel by Roald Dahl. The production is directed by Lisë Hopson, the longtime Coleman theater director and choreographer who came out of retirement to tackle the musical.

“I was thinking I was retired until basically this year the principals at Coleman, they’ve been kind of begging me to come back,” said Hopson of co-principals Ellen Anderson and Marie Anderson. “These are two lovely ladies. The upshot of it is I knew they needed help, and I thought, ‘Well, sure.’”

Hopson first came to the district in 1990 to direct and choreograph musicals at the behest of then-music teacher Wayne Cusher.

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“I started doing it essentially as a volunteer,” said Hopson. “The upshot is, it’s always been my passion since I was quite young, musical theater, and so I threw myself into it, ultimately taking over his job at the school in 1997 where I became the music teacher, chorale director and continued to direct and choreograph all the shows.”

The musical production in 1990 was Oliver!, the classic British musical by Lionel Bart based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. For nearly the rest of the decade, Coleman put on a Broadway-style musical each year. Then in 1998, they produced two: Into the Woods and Beauty and the Beast. That continued through 2014. In 2015, Hopson directed and choreographed Mary Poppins, and then she retired from the district the following year.

“I took a hiatus,” Hopson said. “I thought that was enough, I’d done 45 shows.”

But in the fall of 2017, Hopson returned to direct Musical Memories: Return of the Alumni.

“I just felt strongly that it would be important to gather as many of the theater alumni as we could, and I concocted and we presented an alumni show,” Hopson said. “That was really unique. It was a pastiche of great songs and dances, and we had very little rehearsal time because these were adults with jobs, and many of them lived out of town. It was very cool.”

In the spring of 2018, Coleman put on a performance of Godspell, a student-run production that may signal the future of theater at Coleman. But first, the return of Hopson, helming her 47th production, Matilda, which will represent one of the first high school productions of the musical as the rights only recently became available. 

“I kind of thought I’d do something in a simpler vein, maybe a straight play or comedy,” said Hopson. “The kids, of course, they’ve all been steeped in Coleman musical theater, many of them since they were very young, and were in shows when they were children. They all wanted to do a musical, and Matilda was the choice.”

Truly a group effort

As is often the case in both school and community theater productions, Matilda is coming together thanks to many different people. The cast of 39 was culled from over 100 who auditioned, and includes students from Coleman High, younger kids from Kingston Catholic School, and young performers from local public school districts as well, like Kingston, Onteora and Rhinebeck.

“It’s a really collaborative project,” said Maryanne Moughan, a parent of three children in the play who has herself taken on costuming duties. Moughan’s daughter Michelle, a senior, is assisting with choreography and playing the role of Mrs. Wormwood. Mikey, a freshman, is playing numerous roles, including the escapologist. And Max, a seventh-grader, will play Bruce. For Moughan and her children, the opportunity to work with Hopson again was one of many reasons they wanted to be involved with Matilda.

“My daughter first discovered theater through Lisë Hopson,” said Moughan. “She was encouraged by her music teacher to audition for The Secret Garden (2011) without really knowing what it was. She never did anything before, and she was cast. When Lisëretired we were a little sad, but we’re very excited that she’s come out of retirement to do this show. She has been an inspiration to all three of my children and so many people in the community.”

Lisa Lawrence is also the parent of three children in the production: Brandon, a senior at Coleman, will play Mr. Wormwood; Colin, a 6th grader, plays Michael; and Christina, a sophomore, has a key off-stage role working the spotlight. 

“As a parent, the job Ms. Hopson has done putting this production is absolutely amazing,” said Lawrence. “Her control over the entire cast with such a wide range of ages is remarkable. She has an ability to make each child shine.”

Hopson, who has also taught music at Kingston Catholic and runs a musical theater workshop program for kids called Broadway Bound, said it was all about the kids on and off-stage.

“I love working with kids, and this show not only has high school kids, it has a lot of pre-high school kids,” she said. “They have great energy, and this show allows them to kind of play at times. We have swings that come down on the stage, and a sliding board and teeter-totter in once scene. So they’re singing and playing, and in other scenes they’re terrified or they’re angry. They get to do a lot emotionally in this show. It’s less confined in terms of choreography than most shows are. They’ve got a little bit more free rein in places. They’re having a lot of fun, and when kids have a lot of fun I have a lot of fun.”

The Lawrence kids confirmed that they’re having fun. “What I enjoy most about this production is being able to gather with my friends and enjoy this masterpiece,” said Colin.

“What I like most about this production is working with all the different ages not just high schoolers,” said Christina. “I enjoy working with Ms. Hopson because of her experience and determination to make us succeed.”

“I enjoy all the experience Ms. Hopson brings to allow us to be better actors and actresses, and she works with us individually,” said Brandon, adding that their enjoyment should spill into the audience. “People that are considering seeing Matilda should know it is not your typical show and you will not be disappointed.”

Far-reaching effects

Hopson said the importance of youth theater goes beyond just putting on the show.

“I think it builds incredible amounts of skills that are relevant to life whether you continue with theater or not,” she said. “I have seen tremendous growth and changes in students over my many, many years. It’s just the transformation that can come over them. Kids can build personal confidence and poise, and the ability to do multiple things simultaneously, and grace under pressure. So many things.”

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“When I was a child I was extremely shy,” Hopson said. “I was a ballet dancer, which meant I had to be silent and I liked that very much because I couldn’t even talk to adults. 

It was musical theater, starting in ninth grade, that really changed me. It works magic with kids.”

As for what comes next, who knows? Hopson said she’s made no commitment beyond Matilda and is just enjoying the moment in the moment.

“It is a lot of work,” Hopson said. “I’m basically producing the show, set designing. I’m there pretty much seven days a week. It’s taken over my life completely. And I think what’s happened is that since I don’t have a full-time job in addition to directing and choreographing and vocal directing and producing, I end up putting more time into the show. When I do a project I’m kind of all-in and can’t do anything else.”

John A. Coleman Catholic High School’s production of Matilda will take place over two weekends in April, 5-7 and 12-14. On Fridays and Saturdays, the curtain rises at 7 p.m., and on Sundays there will be a 3 p.m. matinee. Tickets are $16 for adults and $11 for kids under 12. For further information, call Coleman High School at 845-338-2750.