Matilda. The name alone brings a sweeping sense of nostalgia to so many people whether it was the original book by Roald Dahl or the 1996 movie. I, personally, have always been a fan of the original movie and was delighting to discover last year that Children’s Theatre Company would be producing the regional premiere of this Tony-award winning show.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is the story of a young girl who’s affinity for reading and the search of knowledge is always put to the test by her awful mother and father. Since birth it’s apparent that they never wanted her and consistently push her to the edge. Things get worse for this young and brilliant girl when she starts school under the direction of the wicked and awful Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull. Matilda must grow up quicker than most as she navigates this new environment and teaches so many adults, including her teacher Ms. Honey, that sometimes it’s ok to be afraid but what’s important is how to conquer those fears.
Walking into the theatre is always a treat in itself at CTC due to their incredible sets. Often there is much on stage to look at and admire before the show begins. This time however the set, designed by Scott Davis, is a bit hidden from the audience before the show starts. A large circle consisting of towers of books frames the stage while hanging open books flutter and loom over the set. It’s not till the lights go down when we begin the story and open the cover of this adventure. It had a Broadway caliber to it that I particularly enjoyed as it wasn’t too flashy and left room for imagination but helped set scenes so well.
Technical elements really were well thought out in this show. The magic of theatre is alive and always surprising audience members, including many adults who gasped at many tricks before their eyes. This includes quickly changing the color hair of Mr. Wormwood, a disappearing cake, self writing chalk and a glass that Matilda tips over with her mind.
CTC consistently breaks the fourth wall in terms of objects and actors, quite literally, entering the house. At one point Trunchbull swings a student by her pigtails and she magically appears in the balcony of the theatre. It’s such a fun refreshing way to get some laughs and some astonished looks from the younger audience members.
The script itself, along with the songs, are so well written. The story pushes along and while this musical feels longer than most CTC shows, it never drags thanks to Peter C. Brosius direction. The songs itself have the lyrical complexity of Sondheim and yet the whimsical feel of a children’s book. Like any good show whose target audience is skewed a bit younger this one includes plenty of adult jokes including my personal favorite in which a parent states that their child is failing in class so clearly it’s the teacher falling short...which is often almost never the case.
The cast is delightful in singing composer and lyricist Tim Minchin’s music however during many of the larger numbers it was hard to understand exactly what was being sung. However I am still consistently impressed more and more with the younger ensembles that CTC is able to cast. While the show focuses on the revolting kids, for me it was two of the supporting actresses that stole the spotlight and they include Autumn Ness, who is celebrating 19 seasons with CTC acting company, as Mrs. Wormwood and Emily Gunyou Halaas as Miss Agatha Trunchbull.
Ness is a CTC favorite. For anyone who has seen a show at CTC in the last 19 seasons, chances are you’ve seen this beyond talented actress. Her ability to be over the top comedic while still containing herself to the realism of the story has an SNL comedic sketch esque to it that is incredibly fun to watch. Her extreme level of over the top shenanigans also contrasts well with China Brickey’s performance as Miss. Honey. Brickey perfectly captures the pureness that many of us remember in some teachers during our school yard days. She’s able to draw that loving nature that teachers have for their students which warmed my heart entirely.
Emily Gunyou Halaas is a name I would like to see on more cast lists. While this is my first experience in seeing her perform I certainly hope it’s not the last. As Trunchbull she is sinfully delicious with a level of serious campiness that has earned her my favorite performance of the year by far of any actress in the Twin Cities. Her last big solo number titled “The Smell of Rebellion” is a showstopper.
What makes Matilda such an inspiring character is her consistent perseverance. She’s smart, obviously, but strong willed and at such a young age really understands the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. Three actresses play Matilda in this production and I was fortunate enough to see Sofia Salmela perform. For so young Salmela just gets it. Her portrayal shows wisdom, strength, skill and still a level of childlike innocence.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is quite easily my favorite production I’ve seen at CTC. The set is divine and the performances by all are truly mesmerizing to watch. It’s a perfect show for the family to see with educational themes to keep the conversation going at home. It’s truly a delightful and magical show.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical plays at the Children’s Theatre Company now through June 23rd.