Matilda the Musical survives its director

The Arts Club is presenting Matilda the Musical at the Stanley.

This girl, Thailey Roberge, is one of the best reasons to see Matilda at the Arts Clubs. There are also reasons not to. (Photo by David Cooper)

Matilda the Musical survives Daryl Cloran’s direction, even though he makes a good stab at bludgeoning it to death.

The material itself is fantastic. Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, Matilda tells the story of a bright, sensitive little girl — whose parents despise her. Unable to accept that the son he expected was born without a “thingy”, Matilda’s dad, Mr. Wormwood, insists on referring to her as a boy. And both mom and dad are appalled that Matilda would rather read books than watch TV.

When Matilda starts school, she finds an ally in her sweet teacher, Miss Honey, and an archenemy in the sadistic headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.

With an extravagant accent, the story speaks the language of children. Miss Trunchbull is more than mean; a former champion in the hammer throw, she grabs a little girl by the pigtails, spins her around and sends her rocketing through space. When a little guy named Bruce burps after swiping a piece of Mrs. Trunchbull’s chocolate cake, his belch turns into a gaseous cloud that threatens to wipe out his classmates before landing in Miss Trunchbull’s twitching nostrils, sealing his fate.

As punishment, Mrs. Trunchbull sends Bruce to Chokey, a tiny closet-cum-torture-chamber lined with sharp objects.

Part of what makes Matilda so moving is that the piece is speaking up — wittily and ferociously — in favour of justice for neglected and otherwise abused children. Though she’s small and lonely, Matilda is not afraid of saying to adults, “That’s not right.”

And the whole show is a sustained anthem to resilience and the power of the imagination. Matilda improvises a story for her friend the librarian, Mrs. Phelps. It’s about a baby girl who is desperately loved and wanted by her parents. As Matilda pulls at the thread of her tale, its unspooling reveals ever-deepening wonders about love, creativity, and survival.

What a shame, then, that Cloran betrays this material so thoroughly — especially in Act 1.

Clearly, Matilda takes place in a wild world and its characters are freely drawn. But, under Cloran’s direction, too much of Matilda turns into a flat, abrasive cartoon. The tone he sets is all about hollering, gesticulating, and overacting your purple socks off.

I’ve loved Lauren Bowler in other shows, but she shrieks her way through the role of Matilda’s mom. And Ben Elliott (Mr. Wormwood, Matilda’s dad), who has proved himself an insanely gifted comic actor in other productions, is almost as bad as Bowler is in this one. Sharon Crandall is terrible as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian: so over the top, so phony. To be clear, the primary responsibility for all of this is Cloran’s: his diktat has clearly been, “Go big or go to Chokey.” The relentless aggression of the world he has created forms a kind of force field that repels emotional investment.

Fortunately, there are two bright spots in Act 1. Thailey Roberge, who played Matilda the night I saw the show — she’s alternating the role with Georgia Acken — is so quietly authentic that, almost singlehandedly, she keeps this production from going completely off the rails before the intermission. She can sing, she can dance, and she is a truly gifted actor. Roberge is admirably unafraid to be quiet or to take her time; as a result, everything she says and does lands.

I am also very grateful for Alison MacDonald’s warmly credible and understated performance as Miss Honey.

Fortunately, the successes start to pile up in Act 2. John Ullyatt, who’s playing Miss Trunchbull — it’s a drag role — gets more stage time in the second half and he brings down the house with his big number “The Smell of Rebellion”. Instructively, Ullyatt’s characterization is large, but not desperate. His Miss Trunchbull is hugely eccentric and, within that, he’s relaxed.

Matilda’s story-within-the-story reaches its affecting conclusion in the second act.

And the kids get a couple of great numbers, including “Revolting Children”, an anthem that Angelo Cornel, playing the cake-pilfering Bruce, belts out with a rocker’s abandon.

The kids’ chorus is well cast: there are all sorts of colours and body types up there. And everybody in his chorus is givin’ ‘er, which is a good thing, because they carry a whole lot of the show.

In the end, though, it’s the material that wins the day. Tim Minchin wrote the music and the clever, unabashedly helpful lyrics. Let me leave you with a sample (sung by Matilda): “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it/Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it./If you always take it on the chin and wear it, nothing will change./Just because I find myself in this story,/It doesn’t mean that everything is written for me./If I think the ending is fixed already,/I might as well be saying I think that it’s OK,/And that’s not right!”

So meta. And so true.

MATILDA THE MUSICAL Book by Dennis Kelly. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. From the novel by Roald Dahl. Directed by Daryl Cloran. Co-produced by the Arts Club Theatre, the Citadel Theatre, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Thursday, May 23. Continues until July 14.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Linda Q. says:

    Ya. And I’m so tired of drag performances when women would do just fine. Men playing middle-aged women are so funny, dontcha know?

    • Christopher David Gauthier says:

      I hear you Linda. John Ullyatt is good, no doubt, but I couldn’t help but think it’s time for women to take these roles (here, Edna in Hairspray, no more male Lady Bracknells, etc)

      • Linda Q. says:

        Thank you for acknowledging the issue, Chris. We don’t put up with that kind of consistent mis-representation in casting in other types of roles, these days.

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