Thursday, March 30, 2017

Marvelously Matilda

Roald Dahl's eerie story reigns at the Orpheum Theater this week. 

Photo by Tim Trumble.

There are some things I am grateful for being sheltered from as a child. I was lucky in a lot of ways, and an analog upbringing was really good for my mental and emotional development. 

But sometimes I feel like I really missed out on things everyone else experienced, and Roald Dahl is one of them. To this day I have never read a Roald Dahl book, a sad fact that I hope to remedy in coming years. I was lucky enough to encounter several film adaptations of his books, and while I was never entranced by most of them there was one that stood out above all others: Matilda. Maybe it was because it was so different from all the other stories I heard as a child, maybe it was the macabre nature of the story; whatever it was, I was hooked. I saw the film dozens of times growing up, so it's no surprise that I was really excited to see the stage adaptation coming to Minneapolis. I love seeing the magic of movies come to real-life interpretation, and Matilda felt like the perfect candidate for stage magic (right up there with Mary Poppins). 

Photo by Joan Marcus.

For those who are Roald Dahl newbies like me, here's the story: Matilda is a child accidentally born to two parents who couldn't want her less. She is a genius, teaching herself multiplication and how to read at a very young age, which is all the more impressive because she does it with zero support at home. Matilda concocts stories to help her escape her abusive home, each of which gets more elaborate as time passes (and some of which prove to be true). Matilda's greatest hope for escape is to begin school, but there's a catch: school is run by the evil Miss Trunchbull, a principal even more abusive than Matilda's parents who loathes children and makes everyone's life she touches miserable. Matilda's only saving grace is a meek, loving teacher named Miss Honey, whose kindness inspires Matilda to action to save herself (and all of her classmates) from their living nightmare. The story meanders its way to a happy ending, but make no mistake: this is a dark tale, and it pulls no punches. 

Photo by Tim Trumble.

It's always hard to reliably cast children, whose school schedules and few years on earth (in terms of artistic development) can be somewhat unreliable in terms of quality performance, but have no fear here: these kids are true professionals. Anchoring the cast with a halcyon voice and kick-butt attitude is Gabby Gutierrez as Matilda (one of three possible cast members touring as Matilda with this show). Gutierrez is perfect for this role, with a crystal clear pitch and a grounded but sassy attitude that defines Matilda's defiance. She is helped by a grouping of fellow wonderful kids, especially Gabrielle Beredo as Matilda's adorable best friend Lavender and Soren Miller as the heartwarming cake-thief (and aspiring rock star) Bruce. The kids tumble through some seriously impressive choreography (including switching swings, tumbling over an obstacle course and some thoroughly coordinated calisthenics) all the while maintaining their punchy harmonies. They're really good, and any kids in the audience (like the ones who sat behind me last night) will be totally inspired by their performance. 

Photo by Joan Marcus.

The adults in this cast are also enjoyable. The audience was rolling at the antics of Dan Chameroy as fearsome Miss Trunchbull, whose butch bullishness brought just the right touch of comedy to Miss Trunchbull's truly dark soul. Darcy Stewart was absolutely hilarious as Matilda's mother Mrs. Wormwood, particularly in her standout song "Loud" with her dance instructor Rudolpho (marvelously portrayed in a flared jumpsuit by Stephen Diaz). Their knockout choreography is a high point in the play, and I could have watched them dance for hours. The kids loved laughing at Matt Harrington as emerald-haired Mr. Wormood, Matilda's father, and Darren Burkett brings a Family Guy-meets-Jason Schwartzman vibe to Matilda's brother Michael. Jennifer Bowles has a lovely voice as Miss Honey, which is beautifully paired with Justin Packard (who plays multiple roles, most notably the Escape Artist and Miss Honey's father). 

Photo by Joan Marcus.

There are several really lovely songs in this show. "When I Grow Up" is the most spectacular, with a breathtaking scene featuring swings and winsome harmonies. Matilda has a standout moment in her solo "Quiet," with some gorgeous, songbird-like arpeggios. "School Song" features some truly imaginative choreography, including a set of interlocking letter cubes that innovatively spell the whole alphabet. And the show ends with a bang (literally) with "Revolting Children," a riotous explosion of song and dance. 

Photo by Joan Marcus.

The production design is quite busy but also truly draws the audience in. The loveliest moments are those featuring Matilda's story about the Escape Artist and the Acrobat, which not only features a brilliant narrative and glitzy cameos but a really gorgeous animation piece reminiscent of the interlude in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows film. There's a lot of spectacular lighting here as well, which is notable because Matilda is mostly a story of shadows. This is not the place you will find a lot of rainbows and hearts and sunshine, but there is still a lot of love and heart and vibrancy to be seen between the dark places. 

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Matilda is a story that feels fresher than ever despite it's age, and it's one that I look forward to revisiting again in the future. Matilda's oppression as a child who loves learning in a world that values cheap distraction and entertainment is a contemporary one, and there is much that kids and grownups alike can learn from her insistence on pursuing truth and knowledge at any cost. It's also a great demonstration that abuse and neglect can take many forms, and that we must all be careful in the way we approach childhood. After all, we only get to experience it once; shouldn't we do our best to get it right? Matilda runs through April 2 at the Orpheum Theater; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link