Theater Review: MATILDA

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical
Book by Dennis Kelly; Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Tickets $33.00
KleinTheatre, University of Mary Washington, performances through November 19th

Reviewed by Dennis Wemm

For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.
– GK Chesterton

Is Matilda just a “revolting child”, or a good human being becoming great? This adaptation from Dahl’s classic children’s tale lets her have it both ways, all by getting a little bit naughty.

UMW’s Klein Theatre crew brings it to lively life in all aspects of the show. As you enter, the stage is covered with children’s letter blocks, stacked and painted on perspective arched wings. Primary colors and white predominate; shafts of light highlight areas in the hazy, open space. (Warning to those who are sensitive, there is a lot of stage haze used throughout the show.)

We’re introduced to Matilda (Emmy Beach) and her family as she is born, and her father (Mason “MO” Oberle) has shown up to the maternity unit armed with everything he might need to greet his new little boy. Boy? Boy, is he in for a surprise. His wife, Mrs. Wormwood (Kyleigh Friel), is irritated by his reaction-almost as irritated as she was with being told she was pregnant. So inconvenient!

It’s not long before an older Matilda is introduced as an introverted genius and her family as dishonest (read criminal and philandering) TV addicts. They have not bothered to get to know her or what she can do. There’s also a firstborn son, Michael, who does almost nothing but watch TV and roll around the stage on his heelys. Matilda is the talented one.

Some of the loveliest moments in the show take place in a library where Matilda tells stories to Mrs. Phelps. This provides background for what Matilda is like when she’s allowed to express herself and a place where she can use her special talent.

What is her special talent? Flipping scripts. Righting wrongs. Rewriting stories and sharing them. (Some other paranormal abilities will show up later, but they only help her to change the story of her life and those of people she loves.)

So, Matilda-the naughty, revolting child-goes to school with uniforms, regimented behavior reinforced by older student bullies, and worst of all with world-champion hammer throwing Headmistress Miss Agatha Trunchbull. Headmistress Trunchbull is the meanest of meanies, the most controlling authoritarian you will ever see. Professor Dolores Umbridge of Harry Potter fame is a subtle politician compared to Agatha (played with a unibrow of doom by Matthew Monaghan).

Matilda meets many children who are fellow Trunchbull sufferers. When you dare to challenge Trunchbull’s rules, she changes the rules in order to suppress the child. You can tell that these two are not going to get along.

At home, Michael watches TV, plays on his handheld games, and rolls around on his heelys. Mr. Wormwood is going to pull one over on some Bulgarians, selling them junker cars by rolling back their odometers, and Mrs. Wormwood is taking dance lessons from Rudolfo (Ryan Bailey, who is, in the only word available to describe him, a hoot). And so, home is no refuge from the insanity that is school for Matilda.

The one sweet spot in the school is a young teacher, Miss Honey, who sees each child and teaches them just what they need in the way they need to be taught. For Matilda, it’s love at first sight. Soon, we learn that Matilda is so precocious because she is so brilliant. When none of the other kids can do arithmetic or read books, Matilda does complex math and reads high school and adult level books. Miss Honey is in love as only a teacher who has a truly brilliant and willing student can be in love. And that’s all the story I’m going to give away here. See the show.

Performances are uniformly strong. Staging and direction by Gregg Stull are clear, clever and for the most part seamless. Even if there are occasional pauses for scene changes, they are well filled by a fantastic lighting treatment that turns the blocks into an endless tunnel. The orchestra, led by Music Director and Conductor Angie Benson, is in tune and in step throughout. Choreography is snappy, angular, for the most part percussive, and fits the music and language of the songs well.

Scenery, costumes, and properties are well-integrated and stylish, so much so that when something intrudes from the real world (ordinary trophies decorating Trunchbull’s desk) it’s a jolt. The lighting supports the scenes well and is timed well. The very few special effects are effective and fit the expressionistic style of everything else in the design.

I had a couple of quibbles, mainly having to do with understanding lyrics. First, in many of the very fast ensemble numbers the balance between vocal sound and instrumental sounds shifts a bit much to the instrumental side of the scale. This makes it difficult to distinguish voices from the background beats, and we lose the meaning of the lyrics. Second, the dialects plus the child-like voices most of the singers use plus the drive to “rock out” especially when building to a climax in a song sometimes causes the lyrics to become indistinguishable from each other. Finally, especially in moments when the entire chorus has an entrance into a song in the middle of a section, those entering the stage with the song enter with a different tempo than is already being sung on stage. It makes the words muddled, and the show’s lyrics are built on verbal wit and byplay.

That’s enough quibbling because the show is energetic, imaginative, fun and a visual feast of images. You need to see this show, and judging from Friday night’s lack of empty seats, you need to act very fast to get in!

Dennis Wemm started directing at age 17 and didn’t stop until he retired three years ago. He loves his new home in Fredericksburg where theatre is an art, a community, and a diversion.