There is mischief and magic in MATILDA

MATILDA is not your ordinary little girl, which is great because this is not your ordinary kids musical.  Matilda, her schoolmates, and some outrageously self-absorbed adults have descended upon the San Diego San Diego Civic Theatre through February 5th.

MATILDA
MATILDA

This show is full of some very talented children and adults, but just like the character in the show, Matilda (there are three girls who share the role) is the most extraordinary part of this show.   Matilda, played Jenna Weir in the performance I attended, is the mischievous, intense, and lonely little girl who rails against the unfairness and stupidity of the family that she was born into. On stage for most the show, Weir was as talented as any of the adults, while balancing the characters sweetness and sadness, with moxie and mischief in a very empathetic way.

Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, “Matilda” is a little darker, and the adults are a little more awful, than in some of his other books.  It seems closer to the vein of “The Witches” then it is to “The BFG” (Big Friendly Giant.  There is nothing friendly about most of the adults in Matilda’s home or school towards this bookish and brilliant little girl. True to its origin in both British literature and theatre, the show maintains a very British quirkiness and humor throughout.

Matilda’s parents, Mr. Wormwood (Matt Harrington) and Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) are cartoonish buffoons who cannot figure out why their daughter likes books so much.  Mr. Wormwood is a crooked car salesman who is obsessed with “the telly” and Mrs. Wormwood is a dance competition crazed women who sings “Looks are more important than books.”

Her headmistress is Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy), the hammer throwing champion for her country, and someone who seems to dislike children so much that the school’s motto is “Bambinatum est Maggitum,” or “Children are maggots.

There is a sadistic glee to Miss Trunchbull, as she wants everything to fall in within her lines and rules. If they don’t, or if she is heaven forbid proven wrong, then she will make that person’s life hell.  Chameroy finds the funny in the darkness of Trunchbull.  Like when this headmistress wistfully sighs “imagine a world without children…closes your eyes and just dream” and delicately arranging her skirt while exhausted children are running and doing flips all around her.

Luckily for Matilda she and her schoolmates have two very important allies backing them, Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles, who has a lovely soprano) , the one nice, capable, and caring adult in the entire show, and the knowledge and imagination from all those books.

The music and lyrics, by Tim Minchin, navigate the story’s balance of darkness to light, with some clever asides.

In the opening all the children proudly proclaim that “My Mommy says I’m a miracle” and as one lone adult slyly wonders “Is it is some modern miracle of calculus, that such frequent miracles don’t render each one un-miraculous?”

“School Song,” is a more menacing welcome to school, with the older children gleefully explaining the ABC”s and the horrors that await them.

It’s Matilda’s opening song “Naughty” that truly captures her spirit, and how this shows is going to proceed.  “Just because you find life is unfair, doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it”, she sings in defiance.  Instead of putting up with abuse, she will use her cleverness, book knowledge, and belief in herself to get even.

“When I Grow Up,” sung by the company, is a more optimistic song that is performed on swings. As the kids pick up speed on the swings (just in time for the chorus to rise) it reminds everyone in the audience of the pure optimism of the young.  The surety that when you are an adult you’ll be able to do anything you want, know the answers to every question, and vow things like” I will eat sweets every day on the way to work and I will go to bed late every night!”

The cast of MATILDA  in "When I Grow Up"
The cast of MATILDA in “When I Grow Up”

The songs and the dialogue are very dense, and very quick, so there were times where the show overall would have benefited from cleaner delivery so that it all could be understood better.

The story covers a lot of ground and location, particularly in the first act, which ultimately makes this show feel a bit too long.  There are a lot of threads to keep straight, what’s happening at school, at home, at a teachers house, and a story that Matilda weaves for the local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser).  All things eventually come together in the second act, but it leaves this delightfully twisted fable feeling a little like the never-ending story.

The choreography though never falters, no matter where in the story it falls. Choreographed by Peter Darling, the dance is as imaginative as the subject matter, with children and adults both joining in.  With movement that ranges wildly from flinging people off a valt and trampoline to a sexy samba; everything is creative, energetic, and entertaining.

Like most of Dahl’s stories, what makes MATILDA stand out is that in the darkness of the story, the light comes from the main character herself and her friends.  By using knowledge, a bit of creativity, and the belief that “Nobody but me is gonna change my story” you can change the world.  Sometimes that’s a nice reminder to have.

MATILDA is playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre through February 5th, 2017.  For ticket and show time information please go to www.broadwaysd.com

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