'Matila The Musical' dark, delightful

Aaron Krause • Feb 21, 2016 at 9:00 PM

FT. MYERS, Fla. -- There's a scene in the visually-enthralling, dark and delightful "Matilda the Musical" in which Roald Dahl's little heroin delights the town librarian with a tale that, in some ways, mirrors what happens in the musical. The librarian's disturbed by a part of the tale.

"It's only a story Mrs. Phelps," the wise-way-beyond-her-years, brainy and bookish Matilda responds.

It's a good thing "Matilda The Musical" is also just a story of fiction. If it weren't, in today's over-vigilant society when it comes to the treatment of children, the telephone lines to children's services would be ringing all day. But again, we need to remind ourselves, it's just the imagination of brilliant children's storyteller Dahl, whose other famous works include "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach."

Part of Dahl's brilliance is he allows us to relax and laugh, even while cringing at a monster such as Crunchem Hall school headmistress Miss Trunchbull and her vicious treatment of the children in her charge.

A delightful and at times dark Royal Shakespeare Company production of the musical, which opened on Broadway in 2013, is still playing on the Great White Way. It has won or been nominated for numerous awards, and is touring the country. It's in the middle of a run at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall at Florida SouthWestern State College, one of several stops in the Sunshine State before heading north. It will play Detroit's Fisher Theatre from March 9-20, Chicago's Oriental Theatre from March 22-April 10 and Cleveland's PlayhouseSquare from May 3-May 22.

One of the problems at the peformance I saw was that, at crucial times, it was difficult to understand the lyrics and some of the dialogue. Sometimes the vibrant orchestra drowned out the songs, while accoustics may not have been the best at other points. Regardless, the sound problems need to be fixed ASAP.

"Matilda The Musical," based on Dahl's novel "Matilda" might scare some small children at times, with creepy sound effects that might bring to mind a Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp. But most youngsters and adults will delight in musical book writer Dennis Kelly as well as composer and lyricist Tim Minchin's emphasis on the power of stories and one's imagination.

Each of us has a role to play in the telling of tales, set and costume designer Rob Howell's ingenious, flexible scenic design seems to suggest. It consists of "curtains" of make believe books and individual letters arranged in a word seach-like format (you can make out the word "Matilda" if you look closely). The letters are drawn onto individual blocks, arranged in a haphazard fashion. Some of the squares are empty. Howell's set design can suggest that each of us can add our own contributions to stories, fiction and non-fiction, and can help arrange them in such a way that they form a coherent, interesting tale.

The team of Howell (who also designed the costumes), lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and sound designer Simon Barker combine to create a non-realistic, colorful, sometimes foreboding atomsphere look that lends a storybook quality to the production.

Director Matthew Warchus's direction is focused and energetic, while choreographer Peter Darling's vibrant dances suggest solidarity among the children.

"Matilda The Musical" possesses enough comedic, fantastical material and child actors to delight youngsters. It also incorporates, without seeming preachy, life messages that adults will find valuable about perseverance, the preciousness of children and how they can pleasantly surprise you as well as the resposibilities when it comes to being a parent.

And who doesn't appreciate and become engrossed in a tale of good vs evil, the underdog vs the favored (or David vs Goliath, if you will), the outsiders among us vs society's obstacles placed in their path to not just acceptance, but happiness?

Of course, the meaner and more domineering Miss Trunchbull comes across, the greater we feel when Matilda and her classmates triumph over this bully of a dragoness. This character makes Miss Hannigan from "Annie" seem like a kindergarten teacher-of-the-year recipient. She slings stinging insults at her students with the same precision that made her a former hammer-throwing world champion.

David Abeles, in a cross-dressing role with big breasts and a pigtail that's erect (a man played Miss Trunchbull on Broadway as well), induces shivers and gasps. Abeles' Trunchbull seems formidable, if not always downright menacing. Still, you fear her when the big woman sits or stands ramrod straight, sneaks up on a child like a venomous snake or leans into a student as though she's ready to pounce liked a caged, crazed wild animal.

Abeles' Trunchbull stands in stark contrast to Matilda's aptly-named teacher, Miss Honey, played by Jennifer Blood as a woman hardly after blood. The actress has a kind, soft and modest demeanor, especially during the delicate song "This Little Girl." But Blood, who has a, well, honeyed singing voice, also touchingly conveys the teacher's insecurities and vulnerabilities.

During the performance I saw, Matilda was played by Savannah Grace Elmer with a tremendous stage presence, an appropriate precociousness and a confidence without conveying arrogance or narcissism. This young actress, who also has a swagger and is playful in the role, isn't likely to go to bed after each performance with a high glucose level; yes, she conveys some sweetness, some of which emanates from her pleasant singing voice, but she doesn't overdo it.

In the production, the sweet and overly sentimental are avoided in part because Ora Jones, as librarian Mrs. Phelps, differentiates her character from Miss Honey's kindly, compassionate demeanor. Mrs. Phelps comes across as nice, sure, but she also has an intense, almost uncontrollable love of stories. Jones, donning multiple necklesses and a multi-colored outfit and speaking in an accent that sounds Hatian or Jamaican, might conjure the image of a New Orleans voodoo shop proprietress. The portrayal struck me as odd at first, but it later seemed logical that this mysterious woman has a love of the make believe.

As Matilda's uncaring father, the crooked Mr. Wormwood who runs a shady business, Danny Tieger conveys a dismissive attitude toward her daughter, constantly referring to Matilda as a boy. But Tieger's portrayal is clownish at the expense of deviousness. I didn't believe for a moment that he was proud o fhow he's gotten away with cheating people.

The dishonest businessman's better half (Cassie Silva) comes across as a blonde, ambitious airhead when it comes to her love of ballroom dancing and obsession with her looks. Her screeching will have you in stitches.

Other cast standouts include Evan Gray, in the performance I saw, as an at-first awkward, fat student, Bruce Bogtrotter, who later takes charge, leading a show-stopping, "Revolting Children."

The songs aren't going to stick in your head for long. The musical number "Telly" about Mr. Wormwood's love of the TV, conveys his ignorance, contrasting him with his daughter. This song's awkwardly followed by an upbeat but too short song in which the children look to their future by singnig "When I Grow Up."

While singning it, they're positioned on moving swings, relaxed. It's as though they're flying in a free state toward their future. It's a state that's quite a contrast from their time, as punishment, in the"chokey" -- a narrow cupboard with spikes on the walls, nails sticking up from the floor and unavoidable glass that cuts into the students' skin.

Children's stories aren't limited to harmless, escapist, G-rated material, as evidenced from such tales as "The Secret Garden." and "Matilda" is hardly G-rated either. There's a toughness inherent in it, not unlike that possessed by the urchin Gavroche in "Les Miserables." Watching "Matilda" and its message that little people can do big things, I'm reminded of Gavroche's lyrics in the song "Little People."

"Little people know, when little people fight, we may look easy pickings but we've got some fight."

Matilda has that in her, alright.


WHAT: "Matilda The Musical"

WHEN, WHERE and TICKET INFORMATION: Visit us.matildathemusical.com/tour

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