Following the success of “James and the Giant Peach,” with other literary favorites including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Magic Finger,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Twits,” “The BFG” and “The Witches,” in 1988, acclaimed author Roald Dahl introduced the world to a very special little girl named Matilda.
Born to abusive parents and left to her own devices more often than not, it was hard not to empathize with the tiny child, ultimately loving her in ways her parents never would.
In 1996, the magic of “Matilda” was brought to the silver screen with a young Mara Wilson, then in 2010, she made her way to the stage in a musical production developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. A short run in Stratford-upon-Avon led the show to London’s West End in 2011 before hopping across the pond to Broadway in 2013 where it continued garnering awards, praise and even a Tony for best book of a musical.
Continuing its international march, “Matilda: The Musical” is now showing at the Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy with every ounce of magic it’s had since its inception.
“(Matilda is) a horribly neglected little girl who, with the help of her favorite teacher, great books and a little bit of magic, finally outwits her abusers and finds what every kid longs for; a truly loving home,” wrote HCT “Matilda” director Dave Tinney. “In this ‘David vs. Goliath’ fable, Mr. Dahl simultaneously satirizes adulthood through the eyes of young Matilda, while honestly capturing the longing of an unloved child.”
In closing, Tinney wrote, “I’d like to dedicate this production to all the teachers who every day protect, defend, inspire and empower kids to discover their own unique magic they never knew they had.”
Though I hate to admit this, until I saw the announcement that the show would be featured at the Hale Centre Theatre, I was previously unaware that “Matilda” had been made into a musical. Just how egregious that error was became crystal clear as I walked into the Hale’s Young Living Centre Stage theater, which had been totally transformed with bunches of colorful balloons and incredible floor art resembling a child’s writing page, inscribed with alphabet and number practice, as well as touching phrases such as “Somewhere inside of all of us is the power to change the world,” and “Even if you are little, you can do a lot.”
As the lights dimmed in the theater, my anticipation built, coming to a climax as the stage was stormed by the scene of a birthday party featuring children singing, “My mummy says I’m a miracle. My daddy says I’m his special little guy. I am a princess, and I am a prince. Mum says I’m an angel sent down from the sky.”
Adapted by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, it didn’t take long for a unique stage to be set both through the story itself, as well as the carefully crafted set, costume, sound and light design.
As the introductory song (“Miracle”) progresses, the first glimpse is offered of Matilda’s parents – the Wormwoods — who would clearly rather have anything else happen to them than a child. As Mrs. Wormwood laments missing a semi-finals dance competition, Mr. Wormwood can’t get past the fact the newborn child is a girl. It provides a unique juxtaposition with the miracle of life being heralded in the tune as Matilda sings, “My daddy says I should learn to shut my pie hole. No one likes a smart-mouthed girl like me. Mum says I’m a good case for population control. Dad says I should watch more TV.”
If you’ve ever read the book or seen the film of “Matilda,” you’re familiar with the neglect and abuse the child endures at the hands of her family, and later at school through the horrid Miss Trunchbull. As painful as it was to experience that then, somehow, through the musical, it becomes even more acute, creating a truly unique inner turmoil of emotions as the show progresses.
Holding up the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast in the lead role is the young but talented Lucy White as Matilda, with Aaron Ford totally immersing himself in the character of Agatha Trunchbull, bringing to life atrocious villainy mixed with just enough humor and satire to drive the story forward.
Ryan Simmons brought the sleazy father figure of Mr. Wormwood to life with a unique menace that left the audience no choice but to cheer Matilda on in her “naughty” attacks on the man while Amelia Rose Moore used her incredible flexibility to create a caricature of a character you couldn’t help but love to hate.
Giving a little hope for Matilda’s future was Becca Rose as Mrs. Phelps at the library, who truly recognized what a treasure the child was, while Bre Welch as Miss Honey found ways to overcome her own weaknesses to become a champion for the child who had been stifled and subjected to years of abuse.
Before delving too much further into the show, I sincerely have to give credit to the youthful cast of the show. It’s a long production, with difficult music, continuous British accents and very detailed characterizations. Yet I adored Blake Walker as Bruce and Bridget Maxwell as Lavender – who, along with the other children in the cast, brought a beauty and lightness to the show that helped to counteract the darkness and reality of abuse and neglect.
“Matilda” focused in on a dystopian reality, balancing the heaviness of the subject at hand with a childlike perspective, adult caricatures, impressive musical scores and some incredible visual effects.
Early on, audiences got a glimpse of the indomitable spirit of children through Matilda’s song, “Naughty.”
“Just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it. If you always take it on the chin and wear it, nothing will change. Even if you're little you can do a lot, you mustn't let a little thing like 'little' stop you. If you sit around and let them get on top, you might as well be saying you think that it's OK, and that's not right.”
It was refreshing to see someone so young championing for what’s right, something that was a constant theme in the production. The beauty and creativity of childhood was evidenced in costumes, choreography, the artful use of balloons, floating swings, intricate set pieces and an unbelievable sense of camaraderie, though a darkness always loomed as the show tackled unbelievably horrid circumstances without a flinch. It struck a perfect balance that offered just enough joy and hope to forge toward an ultimate happy ending, with just enough kind and understanding adults to check the unabatedly wicked ones.
Though heavy accents and quickly syncopated words occasionally blurred the lyrics of the quick-witted songs in the show, the meaning was more than clearly evident, taking the entire theater on an adventure that kept the crowd engaged from the opening until waves of audience members arose to applaud the dozens of youth that carried the show from start to finish.
Kudos across the board for a technical team and conceptual vision that struck a perfect chord with the classic tale, which runs at the Hale through June 15.
“Matilda is an important musical for kids and parents to see, because it explores how each child has gifts and talents that should be celebrated, championed and treasured,” said Sally Dietlein, HCT vice president and executive producer in a press release on the production. “This show is a wonderful way for children who may feel like a misfit, to understand that there will always be someone that will love them. It makes adults take pause about their children’s uniqueness and their need to be respected. And with our creative team carrying these ideas throughout the show with props, set pieces and screen graphics, it’s a show not to be missed!”
And I couldn’t agree more.