Thalian Association is starting the school year off with a love letter to young readers. They have brought a fabulous, high-energy production of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda The Musical” to the main stage of Thalian Hall. Directed by Cathy Street and choreographed by Jason Aycock, the multiple Tony-winning adaptation provides a great night to share with the smart, imaginative children in your life.
Matilda Wormwood is a precocious little girl (about 5 for most of the story) who has superpowers in the form of a truly stunning mind. Born to Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Katie Richmond Deese and Jordan Wolfe)—she is an amateur ballroom dancer and he is a used car dealer (with a wardrobe that must be seen to be believed)—Matilda is not what they expected or even wanted. Whereas the children around her are considered to be “miracles,” “angels” and “gifts from heaven,” Matilda is an unexpected inconvenience—and furthermore not a boy. We learn this in the vastly over-the-top, captivating song-and-dance number “Miracle.”
Her older brother, Michael (Eli Oescheger), fits right in with family. He is obsessed with TV and suitably dumb. When Matilda starts school, she can do complicated math problems in her head and reads Charles Dickens. Her unappreciative and angry parents just do not understand why she at least isn’t an embarrassment—even if she does have to exist. If she would stop reading and going to the library, it would be an improvement. But the library is Matilda’s magical place and where she finds her first real friend, the librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Leslie Williams).
In addition to encouraging Matilda, Mrs. Phelps is a devotee of Matilda’s stories. Williams’ Mrs. Phelps is everything wanted in a children’s librarian: She shows kindness, respect and admiration for young minds. She just knows Matilda’s parents must be so proud to have a smart, brave daughter. Little does she realize, she is the only person in Matilda’s life who recognizes such qualities. Matilda might be brilliant, but she is also an abused, small child, and she takes her revenge the only way she can: pouring her mother’s hair peroxide into her father’s hair oil, causing Mr. Wormwood to accidentally dye his hair green just before a big sales meeting (“Naughty”).
Matilda starts school and the big kids (Elle Carter, Caleb Hector, Elissa Hall, Sydney Short, Kaylen Rave, Garrett Reider, Devon Jones, Max T. Iapalucci, Jorja Wells, Rileigh Pedersen, Jessi Hoadley, Noelle Smith, Zoe Hemingway, Jakob Gruntfest, Kelsey MCray, and Eli Bright) torment the new, younger children (Kiley Carter, Sophie French, Braelyn Sudduth, GiGi Spargo, Rebecca Deese, Milo J. Iapalucci, Ella Greene, and Chloe Skane). Aycock has choreographed a war dance for “School Song” that brings to life all the terrors of the first day: a place where you will be taken and prevented from leaving, cut off from help and allies, at the mercy of scary adults, and even more scary roving bands of larger kids with no mercy for the innocent.
Speaking of adults, two at school represent the yin and yang of the world: Miss Honey (Megan Golden), Matilda’s kind teacher, has more in common with Matilda than either of them first expect. And there is the headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull (George Domby), a born bully. She has found a place where she can control and terrify people who are literally smaller and cannot stand up to her—every bully’s dream. For all that one can’t help loving, Golden’s Miss Honey, Domby’s Trunchbull is the perfect Roald Dahl villain: terrifying, imposing and funny-looking. Don’t get me wrong, Domby’s Trunchbull is genuinely scary, but in the Dahl sort of way that kids always manage to get their own back.
Dahl tends to portray adults as punchlines because he writes about the world as kids see it: us (kids) vs. the powers in control of our lives, them (adults). Mrs. Wormwood represents all the worst messages about womanhood that could be sent to a smart little girl: dye your hair, spend your husband’s money, worry about clothes and dressing. Deese grasps the humor of it and overplays the sheer awfulness. Her dance partner, Rudolpho (Timothy Mills), has a funny, show-stopping cameo. It is up for debate if he or the audience has more fun during his brief appearance.
Hands down, my favorite of all the adults in the show is Jordan Wolfe’s Mr. Wormwood. Costumer Jen Iapalucci has achieved a minor miracle getting this show costumed. The pinnacle is Mr. Wormwood’s wardrobe of unbearably loud and tacky suits. The one he wears for most of the show could stop traffic on an unlit street after midnight. It would take quite a performance to live up to that suit, but Wolfe fulfills that promise with zest and verve. His plea for kids to stop reading books and start watching TV (“All I Know”) is the best: It combines farce and musical comedy with a phenomenal delivery.
Regan Shumate’s Matilda is truly a heroine. She sings and dances beautifully, and is believable as a brilliant little girl saddled with awful and foolish parents. Yet, she still determines to fight injustice wherever she finds it. Shumate is far from the only stand-out of the children’s performers, though. Alona Murrell, who plays Matilda’s best friend Lavender, is wonderful. She is excited and rambunctious and just a little too pleased with herself. (As my date said every time Murrell came out onstage, “Give this kid a Tony.”)
“I love the set!” I exclaimed to my date as soon as the curtain rose. Scenic designer Andy Bleiler has filled the stage with set pieces that are giant books! “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” “The Jungle Book,” and more children’s classics—literally the building blocks of Matilda’s world, her mind, and her superpowers. Jen Iapalucci has outdone herself with costuming this cast, from Mrs. Wormwood’s ballroom dancing ensemble to the gray-scale school uniforms communicating the prison like nature of their school experience. Visually, it is captivating and stimulating.
“Where did they find so many kids who can perform like that?” my date asked as we left the theater.
“That is the product of Thalian Association Children’s Theatre,” I answered. “Think about it: After eight years of working with professionals in TACT, the kids’ level of training equates to thousands of dollars spent at a conservatory program. It is no surprise a director like Cathy Street can select a large ensemble and feature performers under the age of 16 that will knock your socks off.”
Directly in front of me, a young lady about 3 alternately sat entranced by the action onstage or dancing in her seat. To my left, three of my young friends ranging in age from 9 to 12 visibly pumped their fists in the air and cheered while singing along with “Revolting Children.” As the audience tried to exit the theater after curtain call, these three were looking up karaoke versions of the music from “Matilda.” That’s who the show is written and performed for, and it’s their response, really, that speaks volumes.