Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical
Children's Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Brothers Paranormal, Shul, Marjorie Prime

Sofia Salmela (in front), Emily Gunyou Halaas, and Cast
Photo by Dan Norman
It is no secret that the theatrical magicians at Children's Theatre Company can pull off just about anything they set their minds to, and this time they set their minds on an ambitious, blockbuster show, Matilda, the hit musical based on Roald Dahl's modern classic children's novel that ran for almost four years on Broadway and sent out a national tour that played a week at the Orpheum in Minneapolis just a tad over two years ago. Matilda, to my thinking, is a first-rate show and deserves to be seen by many more people than could make it during the tour company's short run, or who were scared off by the higher downtown ticket prices. So, I say, welcome back, Matilda.

The question, though, for those of us who did see that tour, with dazzling and expensive staging associated with a Broadway pedigree still fairly fresh in their memories, is can the industrious folks at CTC hope to measure up? The answer is a euphoric yes! Director Peter C. Brosius and his team have whipped up a production of Matilda every bit as entertaining as the visitor from Broadway, its staging every bit as slick, with performances every bit as terrific. Moreover, there is a lightness to CTC's production that makes it feel more accessible than the Broadway edition, especially for younger audience members who fill many of the seats at the UnitedHealth Group Stage.

For all its bright entertainment value, there is a darkness to Matilda that is inherent in Dahl's book. Matilda Wormwood is a very young girl whose parents did not want her, who neglected her, treated her with disdain, and are especially mortified by her propensity for reading. These poor excuses for parents—Mr. Wormwood is a used car salesman forever scheming to swindle Russians into buying his fleet of clunkers, while Mrs. Wormwood spends her days practicing for international ballroom dancing competitions with her slithery dance partner Rudolpho—happily send Matilda to a school run by the ferocious Agatha Trunchbull, a former Olympic hammer-throwing champion who calls her students "maggots."

Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood count on her to cure Matilda of her horrid interest in books. Pity for them that Matilda's teacher, Miss Honey, views the girl's intelligence and love for learning as gifts to be nurtured. Miss Trunchbull, however, will not have her standards of total discipline and absence of all joy be compromised by making an exception for that little Wormwood girl, whom she calls a "gangster."

Interspersed with Matilda's story is a story she makes up, telling it in installments to her friend Mrs. Phelps, the local librarian. Her devised tale has meteoric highs and lows, great joy and tragic loss, rapturous love and demonic revenge—not what you would expect of a first grader. As Mrs. Phelps listens with rapt attention, the story is stunningly illustrated by projections that bring Matilda's words to life. Dahl's narrative, crisply and wittily captured in Dennis Kelly's Tony Award winning book, ingeniously intertwines the events of Matilda's life and the story she creates, giving her a pathway out from the shadow of her horrible family.

As I said, while this is a great story, it also has a very dark streak. On the CTC website, it is described as being "for fearless 6 to 96-year olds," with the word fearless being a bit of a joke—but not really. In some way, CTC has diffused this darkness—not so much as to rob the story of its bite, but enough to make it a bit easier to take for those 6-year-olds (and even some older kids ) who are not quite so brave.

This is not, by the way, an abridged, or "junior" version of Matilda, but the full show, running two and a half hours, with intermission. That means missing none of the highlights, including the brilliant use of swings hanging all the way from the rafters on which the ensemble of school kids (both the eight played by children and the six "big kids" played by adult actors) in the joyous "When I Grow Up." Brosius' directing keeps it moving swiftly and smoothly, with seamless transitions that never allow interest to flag.

Tim Minchin's score is engaging throughout, including star turns for Matilda to be brazen in "Naughty" and poignant in "Quiet," Miss Honey's lovely ode to the comforts of her simple life, "My House," a musicalized scene involving much too much chocolate cake ("Bruce"), and a blistering anthem sung by the students, small and big, "Revolting Children." Choreographer Linda Talcott Lee provides constant motion for the ensemble, animating each of the dance scenes with high-test energy.

Along with heaps of talent, the part of Matilda calls for enormous stamina and so is triple-cast with three young actors rotating in the role. On opening night, Sofia Salmela played Matilda, knocking the roof off the house with phenomenal singing and acting, winning our hearts even as she gave in to the temptation to be naughty, her mischief always played upon adults who hurt her much more deeply than she could possible hurt them.

In Matilda's original staging by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, in its transfer production on Broadway, and in the tour that visited Minneapolis, the role of Miss Trunchbull was played by a male actor, to great effect. Children's Theatre Company has not followed that path, casting Emily Gunyou Halaas as Trunchbull, and it turns out to be a great choice. Halaas plays the child-hating, self-aggrandizing headmistress to perfection, raising a storm in two big numbers, "The Hammer" and "The Smell of Rebellion," and convincingly terrorizing the students as well as their teacher. China Brickey is lovely as the tenderhearted Miss Honey, with a voice well suited for her sweet numbers. She conveys the meek teacher's growing confidence as she is determined to help Matilda realize her gifts.

Dean Holt as Mr. Wormwood, and Autumn Ness as Mrs. Wormwood are superb, each competing to be the greater slimeball and less competent parent, with Ness pulling out all stops in demonstrating to Miss Honey, by way of her ballroom-dancing routine, her credo "looks are more important the books" ("Loud"). Tony Vierling puts his notable skills as a dancer to great use as Rudolpho, and Reed Sigmund, who plays several small parts, is a hoot as a Russian mafia chief. Alejandro Vega, who had a lead role in CTC's Last Stop on Market Street, stands out among the extraordinary ensemble of young actors as the cake-eating Bruce.

The creative team match the cast in the excellence of their work. Above the stage is an archway of books, their different colored spines creating a rainbow of color that embraces all of the action. Scott Davis' sets are simple, but evocative of the primal feelings at play in each location, with the library conveying joy, Miss Honey's home warmth and affection, the classroom a grim holding cell, and Miss Trunchbull's office the throne of a mad king. Helen Q. Huang has designed wickedly garish costumes for Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, mad-for-power outfits more like armor than clothing for Miss Trunchbull, life-affirming garb for Mrs. Phelps the librarian, and modest attire for Miss Honey as to concur with her self-assessment in her song "Pathetic." Lighting (Philip S. Rosenberg) and sound design (Sven Severson) are excellent. Dialect coach Lucinda Holshue draws wit out of the different types of British accents (as well as Russian) as spoken by different characters.

Matilda is a stylish, funny, extremely inventive musical, with a story that, while dark, ends with reassurance that there are happy endings for the good, and that the wicked get their just desserts. Whether this is a realistic view of the world or not, it is a great feeling to have while walking out of a musical comedy, especially if you are holding the hand of a young child. As the wise folks at Children's Theatre Company tell us, this show is for fearless 6 to 96-year-olds. If you fall within that range, I heartily recommend you to see Matilda.

Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical, through June 23, 2019, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $15.00 - $67.00. There is a 10% discount for the purchase of six or more tickets. Discounts available for children up to age 17, full-time college students, seniors (age 65 and up), and military families. Rush Tickets: Starting two hours prior to each performance, any unsold seats will go on sale to for $15 each at the CTC Ticket Office, in person only. For tickets and information, call 612-874-0400 or visit Best enjoyed by ages 6 and up.

Book: Dennis Kelly; Music and Lyrics: Tim Minchin; Director: Peter C. Brosius; Choreography: Linda Talcott Lee; Orchestrations and Additional Music: Chris Nightingale: Music Direction: Andrew Fleser; Scenic Design: Scott Davis; Costume Design: Helen Q. Huang; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Sten Severson; Projection Design: Jorge Cousineau; Dialect Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Fight Director: Joe Isenberg; Stage Managers: Jenny R. Friend and Stacy McIntosh; Assistant Stage Manager: Jane Heer; Associate Director (performance): Dean Holt; Associate Projection Designer: Craig Gottschalk; Assistant Directors: Elbi Elm, Coletrane T. Johnson and Katie O'Halloran; Assistant Choreographer: Katie Taintor; Assistant Lighting Designer: Alex Clark; Assistant Sound Designer: Katherine Horowitz; Stage Manager Interns: Keara Lavandowska and Isabel Patt.

Cast: Rowin M. Breaux (Big Kid/ensemble), China Brickey (Miss Honey/ensemble), Chloe Lou Erickson (Hortensia), Emily Gunyou Halaas (Miss Agatha Trunchbull/ensemble), Lillian Hochman * (Matilda Wormwood), Dean Holt (Mr. Wormwood), Stormy Hovan (Video Circus Performer), Julia Humphrey (Lavender), Delaney Hunter (Acrobat/Big Kid/ensemble), Gunnar Laughlin (Big Kid/ensemble), Isaac Leer (Nigel), Dwight Leslie (Acrobat/Doctor/ensemble), Soren Thayne Miller (Tommy), Audrey Mojica * (Matilda Wormwood), Brianna-Marie Mraz (Alice), Hugo Mullaney (Eric), Autumn Ness (Mrs. Wormwood), Sofia Salmela * (Matilda Wormwood), Zachary Schnitzer (Michael Wormwood/Big Kid/ ensemble), Reed Sigmund (Party Entertainer/Mechanic/Sergei/ensemble), Kate Spence (Big Kid/ ensemble), Alexcia Thompson (Mrs. Phelps/Big Kid/ensemble), Alejandro Vega (Bruce), Tony Vierling (Rudolpho/ensemble), Nicola Wahl (Amanda).

* appearing in rotation