Story: Matilda Wormwood is not exactly the apple of her parents’ eyes. In fact, the little girl is constantly subjected to verbal and emotional abuse by her self-centered mother and vapid father. She has been since she was born, when she “deprived” her mum of her annual ballroom-dancing competition. Her father is still sorely disappointed she wasn’t a boy, and to her chagrin still refers to her as such.
Mr. Wormwood schemes to make a fortune by selling dozens of old cars to Russian businessmen under the guise that they are new, while Mrs. Wormwood fixates on her daily dance regimen with her slow-witted trainer Rudolpho. Their mindless son Michael is content constantly watching the ‘telly,’ which pleases them, but Matilda prefers to read books at the local library, which does not.
There she fascinates the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, with a fantastical tale about an “escapologist” and his acrobat wife. The charming duo are renowned for their skills, says Matilda, but their hearts are missing the joy of a child until finally the acrobat learns she is pregnant. Mrs. Phelps hangs on every word of the story, which Matilda makes up as she goes along, leaving the librarian in cliffhanger scenes.
Matilda’s life is further upturned when she is enrolled in Crunchem Hall Elementary, a school run by totalitarian headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. However, Matilda’s brilliance impresses her kind and caring teacher, Miss Honey, who encourages the lass to pursue her love of reading while also being a bit apprehensive of Matilda’s extraordinary mental powers.
Miss Honey’s class is regularly interrupted by the tyrannical Trunchbull, who revels in seeing the children cower in her bullying presence as she threatens to throw them into her dungeon known as the “chokey,” a cupboard lined with sharp objects. Matilda is unimpressed with the punitive methods of the villainous headmistress and soon is befriended by a little girl named Lavender and others.
Can Matilda triumph over the negativity of her parents and the sadistic methods of Miss Trunchbull? Can she help Miss Honey stand up to her own oppressors? Matilda may be small, but she has big ideas about right and wrong.
Highlights: Muny artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson’s idea to welcome Matilda to the amphitheater’s spacious stage in the guise of renowned local artist Mary Engelbreit’s colorful and whimsical works is an inspired master stroke. This magical and enchanting production brings The Muny’s 101st season to a highly satisfying and immensely entertaining conclusion.
Other Info: Engelbreit worked with director John Tartaglia and the production’s designers to give The Muny’s first presentation of Matilda “the distinctive look and feel that has enchanted people for nearly three decades,” said a news release from The Muny in February. The release added that Engelbreit provided character sketches and “will be working with The Muny’s costume, set and video designers as the production continues to develop.”
It’s all come together seamlessly on The Muny stage, making Matilda’s Muny debut a smashing triumph. Based on a beloved 1988 children’s novel by British writer Roald Dahl, Matilda was adapted into a musical in 2010 by playwright Dennis Kelly and composer/lyricist Tim Minchin.
It premiered under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, then transferred to the West End in 2011, winning an Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Matilda debuted on Broadway in 2013, where it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four. It continues to run in the West End, while its Broadway production ended January 1, 2017 after 1,555 performances.
Minchin’s score has a joyful, engaging ring to it, a mixture of jubilation and rousing determination which underscores Matilda’s unflagging spirit despite myriad emotional obstacles. That’s matched by Minchin’s witty and intelligent lyrics in songs delivered with gusto and polished panache by The Muny’s accomplished veteran players as well as its top-notch ensemble and hard-working Muny Youth Ensemble.
Engelbreit’s bright, cheery world is emblazoned in Paige Hathaway’s upbeat scenic design, which incorporates Engelbreit’s signature style into Miss Honey’s well-appointed classroom as well as the Wormwoods’ garish abode. Nathan W. Scheuer’s fanciful video design complements Hathaway’s sets with a dazzling array of looks, such as the entertaining letters of the alphabet in one sequence. Rob Denton’s multi-hued lighting further accentuates Engelbreit’s influence.
Costumes designed by Leon Dobkowski handsomely hearken to the artwork by Quentin Blake for the original novel, abetted by Kelley Jordan’s humorous wig design. The sound design by John Shivers and David Patridge amusingly embellishes the belching of hapless student Bruce when he’s forced to eat all of Miss Trunchbull’s chocolate cake.
Tartaglia weaves directorial magic as he harnesses the energy of his agreeable cast, most impressively the kids portraying Miss Honey’s students: Owen Hanford as Bruce, Ella Grace Roberts as Lavender, Victor Landon, Ana McAlister, Elliott Campbell, Ava Castro, Trenay LaB and Spencer Donovan Jones.
Beth Crandall’s inspired choreography glistens especially well in classroom numbers such as The Chokey Chant, which is performed with delightful verve.
There are numerous wonderful performances, led by the dazzling Mattea Conforti as Matilda, who displays remarkable poise and presence as the gifted child, and by Laura Michelle Kelly as kindly Miss Honey. The latter’s beautiful voice uplifts tunes such as This Little Girl and My House.
Expert comic performances are delivered by Beth Malone as the stomping, sneering Miss Trunchbull, and by Josh Grisetti and Ann Harada as Matilda’s annoyed and self-absorbed parents. Darlesia Cearcy is delightfully spellbound by Matilda’s stories as librarian Mrs. Phelps, while Colby Dezelick and Gabi Stapula enchant in the story sequences as the escapologist and acrobat, respectively.
Humorous in small roles are Sean Ewing as the vain Rudolpho and Ryan Fitzgerald as Sergei, the surprisingly benign leader of the Russian Mafia, as well as Trevor Michael Schmidt as Matilda’s intellectually stunted brother Michael.
The lively ensemble includes fine performances by Maya Bowles, Dezelick, Ewing, Fitzgerald, Berklea Going, Schmidt, Stapula and Sharrod Williams. Michael Horsley’s musical direction maintains a joyous sound throughout, while Tartaglia’s direction keeps the pace quick and the cast’s performances elite all along the cleverly illustrated way.
The Muny’s initial presentation of Matilda is a stroke of whimsical genius, elevating the already magnificent level of this smart and stylish work. Kudos to all involved for bringing The Muny season to such a joyous, inspiring close.
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through August 11
Tickets: Free to $100; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer