Sunday, May 5, 2019

"Matilda" at Children's Theatre Company

The successful musical Matilda (it ran for four years on Broadway, eight years and counting in the West End) is a musical led by child actors, so of course it's the perfect choice for Children's Theatre Company. Although they have a lot of talented adults on stage, and some of their shows even have entirely adult casts, what they do best is nurture and showcase the talent of #TCTheater's youth. And what a bunch of revolting children they are. Nine exuberant, precocious, stupidly talented kids lead us through this dark but inspiring story by Roald Dahl (who also brought us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and likes to show children getting the best of some truly cruel adults). The show is darkly funny yet surprisingly moving, with fantastic performances from the cast, young and old.

Sofia Salmela as Matilda
(photo by Dan Norman)
Matilda is an exceptionally bright 5-year-old (played by an actor about twice that age, because no 5-year-old can be expected to lead a musical) who had the bad luck of being born to parents who value neither her nor her intellect. It's really difficult to watch these neglectful parents constantly belittle their child, and understandable when Matilda gets her revenge by bleaching her dad's hair and gluing his hat to his head (because "sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty," which I guess is the child equivalent of "sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hold on to"). Matilda finds a kindred spirit in her teacher Miss Honey, as sweet as her name, despite the abusive nature of the school and its headmistress Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey supports Matilda in her gifts (which not only include the ability to read novels at the age of five, but also telekinesis), and in exchange Matilda helps Miss Honey solve the mystery of her parentage. There's a lot of wacky fun and dark comedy, but in the end this is a story about two people finding love and a home in each other.*

Highlights of CTC's production are many, including:
  • A set filled with books! Around the circular arch, suspended from the ceiling, lining stories high book shelves, and piled up in Matilda's room. Other set pieces slide in and out like magic, creating the various rooms in the school, with help from some video magic (set design by Scott Davis, projection design by Jorge Cousinea).
  • Costumes that range from the drab school uniforms, to the Wormwoodss cartoonish extravagence, to Miss Trunchbull's militaristic garb (designed by Helen Q. Huang).
  • These revolting children, the most revolting being Sofia Salmela as Matilda (sharing the role with Lillian Hochman and Audrey Mojica). She leads the show with confidence, sometimes commanding the stage solo, interacting well with kids and adults, and giving us all of Matilda's angst, hurt, and determination. The ensemble of eight children (plus a handful of "big kids") are all little stars, each of them fun to watch.
  • Miss Trunchbull. Aside from the kids, Emily Gunyou Halaas is the best thing about the show. She absolutely revels in Miss Trunchbill's evilness, dripping with delicious cruelty in her every movement, word, and expression. She's so bad you almost want to root for her, but delight in her eventual downfall.
  • A supporting cast that is perfection. CTC company members Autumn Ness and Dean Hold ham it up in their broad charactarizations of the world's worst parents, the Wormwoods, while everybody's favorite (or is it just me?) Reed Sigmund steals scenes every which way in a number of roles. Chanhassen regular Tony Vierling uses his dancing skills to comedic effect as Mrs. Wormwood's dance partner (think Strictly Ballroom, but cheesier), China Brickey is a lovely Miss Honey and sings beautifully.
  • Kids dancing! Like Spring Awakening for tweens, these kids express the drama and trauma of being a kid by stamping and jumping around in time to the music (choreographed by Linda Talcott Lee). And the swings moment, to "When I Grow Up," is a tender highlight (I heard other grown-ups sniffling).
  • A fun and catchy score, brought to life by the seven-piece pit orchestra led by Music Director Andrew Fleser.
  • A story that celebrates the power of stories, specifically books. Notes director Peter C. Brosius in the program, "Matilda is a celebration of the power of books and of reading to transform and enlighten us all." When I was growing up, books were my best friends (and maybe still are, along with theater), so I can definitely relate to the little girl who finds comfort in reading.

Miss Trunchbull (Emily Gunyou Halass) with some revolting children
(photo by Dan Norman)

*Plot summary borrowed from what I wrote about the Broadway tour two years ago.

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