In the playbill for the new TheatreSquared production of “Matilda: The Musical,” we’re set up for the show with a note reminding us of where we’ve recently been and the return-to-the-world parties we’ve been planning.
“For us, that party is a play” writes TheatreSquared. “Matilda is a joyous celebration of imagination, childhood – and the subversive act of reading a book.”
Ah, the arts. “Matilda,” based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, is a reminder of the precious nature of arts and literature. While the ongoing pandemic never stopped anyone from reading a book, it did press pause on in-person viewing of concerts, films and theater. We’ve slowly been returning to these events, and TheatreSquared’s timeline syncs with other arts organizations. Their first events after the start of the pandemic featured the cast performing without a live audience. Those events were recorded and streamed to audiences locally and across the country. Then came in-person shows with limited capacity and mask requirements.
“Matilda: The Musical”
Where: Fayetteville Public Library, Fayetteville
When: Daily (except Mondays) through July 18
Tickets: 479-777-7477 or theatre2.org
“Matilda,” meanwhile, feels more like a return to fully realized form – and something entirely new as well. T2 has called “Matilda” the largest production it has ever staged. At 33 listed cast members, not counting understudies, it certainly has the largest cast the company has ever hired. The production features a nine-piece band/orchestra and an elaborate two-tiered scene with books of all sizes surrounding the stage. It’s also anticipated to draw T2’s largest-ever audience. The production is staged inside the Fayetteville Public Library’s new event space, and “Matilda” must be one of the first shows to fill that room. It is a full-capacity show with face coverings optional for those who are fully vaccinated.
The venue is a fitting one for a show about the famed bookworm with magical powers. It takes its basic story arc from Dahl’s classic and expands it with songs and dances. The musical version premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010 and transferred to London’s West End in 2011. The Broadway version debuted in 2013 and it ran there through 2016. The West End version earned seven Olivier Awards upon its debut run; the Broadway version netted five Tony Awards.
If you’ve read the book or seen a “Matilda” movie, the stage version will be familiar to you. Matilda is something below an afterthought. She’s actively punished by her parents, particularly her father, Mr. Wormwood (played locally by T2 veteran Bryce Kemph), for the grand crime of preferring books over television.
To get noticed by her parents, she pulls off some low-level pranks against her father, a trend that carries over into school. There, Matilda and her classmates work to thwart the fiendish Miss Agatha Trunchbull, played by Drew Johnson. I do not know if Johnson is particularly tall, or if the cast of young actors are all still shy of their growth spurts. But I do know that the size difference and the physicality of the Trunchbull role provides sharp and comedic contrast. Trunchbull’s brutish behavior is also deeply different than that of the teacher, Miss Honey (played by Elisabeth Evans), who sees the good in all the students and plans to nurture Matilda’s dazzling intellect. But even that’s not enough, and it takes a bit of magic from Matilda to change everyone’s fortunes.
It is a children’s musical, from a children’s book. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments for adults, as the success of the Broadway and West End productions prove. This is by all stretches of the imagination an ambitious effort from TheatreSquared, which specializes in small cast, emotional rollercoasters. And while it’s not the first musical the company has produced – “Sundown Town” and “Next to Normal” come to mind – it’s certainly the first Broadway-sized show.
I should note that because of the demands (and legal requirements) regarding young actors, the cast is divided into two alternating groups: green and blue casts, with the adults typically performing with both groups. The Sunday evening performance I watched featured the green cast, so some of the specific notes that follow might be different in your viewing if you’re on the alternate night.
You can’t have an excellent “Matilda” without a formidable actress in the lead role, and we certainly had that in Leanne Parks, who helms the role for the green cast. She’s a stage veteran, and she previously performed in Fayetteville as part of the touring production of “School of Rock” that visited the Walton Arts Center in 2018. If you or your children enjoyed “School of Rock” the musical, “Matilda” is likely to be a favorite of yours, too. With its ensemble-oriented cast of talented kids, it similarly showcases young talent and gives them the protagonist’s role. And the showstopping number “Revolting Children” is very much “School of Rock”-esque with students dancing on their desks in the classroom.
Meanwhile, “Matilda” avoids the trap of being too cute for its own good. The cruelty faced by the title character is indeed cruel, and relatable. And Matilda’s desire for escapism resonates, too, and that elevates the production into a smarter show.
The show can be very silly when it wants to be, and I found Matilda’s brother’s antics particularly funny. Played with a slightly self-aware aloofness by J.T. Loveless, Michael Wormwood is the perfect contrast to his bookworm sister. While he harbors no ill will towards Matilda, he’s the antithesis of everything she strives to be.
And what Matilda stives to be is good and right, even when using her tricks and her mental superpowers. I wish we could have watched more of her efforts to hone her talents, an element of the book that feels missing from the musical version. But with a runtime of 2 hours and 45 minutes – it’s a full three hours in the theater if you consider the intermission – I also understand the motivation to keep things moving, even if that meant the ending felt rushed.
I also wished for just a little crisper sound. During several of the numbers, I lost the lyrics to songs. It happened enough to the adult actors that I suspect it was a sound issue and not an acting one.
But it’s early in the run, and this is a big show with big ambitions, and a big heart, too. “Matilda” wants us to believe that if we put our mind to something, and it’s for the right side of things, our strengths will help us prevail. It’s something to think about as we exit from a full theater in a new venue.