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REVIEW: Dark Fun in Matilda: The Musical (Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Jaime MacLean as Matilda in Matilda: The Musical. Photo by Cybil von Tiedemann.

Child abuse runs rampant in the Orpheum Theatre’s presentation of the Broadway touring musical Matilda.  The musical is based upon Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Matilda.  Dahl is famous for such books as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  For the musical version of the book, Dennis Kelly wrote the book and Tim Minchin composed the music and lyrics.  Matthew Warchus is the show’s director and Bill Congdon is the musical director.  The musical debut on Broadway in 2013 and won five Tony Awards.

The company of Matilda in “Bruce”. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Despite having to constantly suppress my desire to pull out my cell phone and call Child Protection, the talented cast, the catching music and movement work makes this a very entertaining production.  The central character in the show is a four-year-old child named Matilda, who was played by Gabby Gutierrez on opening night.  Matilda’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, are very self-absorbed people.  They have little interest in Matilda and, when they do pay attention to her, they actively put her down with vile insults that no parent should ever say to a child.

The insults go deep and spring from deep roots. Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) hangs on to her resentment that Matilda’s birth prevented her from competing in an international salsa dance competition.  Mr. Wormwood (Matt Harrington) is so disappointed that Matilda was not a boy like her brother that he keeps calling her a boy.  They deride the fact that Matilda wants to read with such statements as “looks are more important than books.”  Both parents explode with anger at Matilda when she tells them that it is wrong for her father to defraud some Russians by passing off worn out vehicles as new cars.  To get back at her father, Matilda plays practical jokes such as turning her father’s hair green.

Dan Chameroy as Miss Trunchbull. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Matilda starts school at Crunchem Hall under the headmaster Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy).  Trunchbull, to say the least, will not win the Educator of the Year award.  She is a former Hammer Throwing champion and she hates children; her motto is “children are maggots” and she lives to make the lives of her young charges miserable with cruel and vindictive punishments.  One punishment that all the children fear is the “Chokey”, where she locks children in confined spaces with sharp objects coming out the wall.  The workhouse in Oliver Twist looks pretty good by comparison.  Matilda, however, finds a damaged but kind soul in Ms. Honey (Jennifer Bowles), her classroom teacher who was also bullied as a child.

Act I is too long and sluggish at times, but the show fortunately picks up its pace in Act II, where the numerous loose ends are wrapped up.  In Act II, Matilda rouses her schoolmates to engage in passive resistance to fight Trunchbull and it is very heartening to see these children finally do so.  She also helps Ms. Honey find her backbone, saves her father from the Russian mafia and brings the show to a happy ending negating my need to call the authorities.

As Matilda, Gutierrez’s singing is impeccable and her persona makes this young prodigy believable.  She was at her most enthralling as she tells the story of another little girl who lost her parents and was brutalized by an evil aunt.  Chameroy is so delightfully evil in his portrayal of Trunchbull that the character’s departure from the story is not necessarily welcome.  Bowles’ characterization of Ms. Honey has a Hayley Mills-like quality and the goodness of her nature is showcased in the solo “My House.”  Keisha T. Fraser, as the librarian Mrs. Phelps, is a breath of fresh air in the show with her bubbly enthusiasm for Matilda’s storytelling.

Jenna Weir as Matilda.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Matilda’s classmates provide the driving force for the show with their singing and movement work.  Rather than rely on big dance numbers, Peter Darlings’ choreography of the children’s chorus uses fast-moving, synchronized hand and leg movements to fill up the stage and mesmerize the audience.  Except for the song “My House,” most of the music is not distinctive, but has a frightening tone consistent with the show’s darkness.  Rob Howell’s gloomy scene designs, Simon Baker’s extraordinary sound design and Hugh Vanstone’s inventive lighting design all meld together to cast the school with prison-like qualities and greatly contributing to the show’s brooding  nature.

Once one can get pass the child maltreatment, Matilda is a very charming and enjoyable show.  Even though Matilda is considered a children’s novel, this show’s dark themes of child abuse does not make it suitable for children less than ten years of age.

Matilda: The Musical plays through April 2 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.

Bev Wolfe
Bev Wolfe is a Staff Reviewer at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. She is an attorney and avid theatre fan who has written theatre reviews for local publications since 2008. She is also an Ivey Awards evaluator.
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