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Matilda the Musical: an excellent production of one of my favourites

by | Jul 15, 2023 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for Matilda the Muscal at TUTS, 2023

Sing out, young star!
(Photo of Siggi Kaldestad on Brian Ball’s set by Emily Cooper)

During the intermission at Matilda the Musical, my partner and I took a little stroll down towards the orchestra pit. And we noticed something: a bunch of the kids in the audience were already writing their reviews of the show — with their bodies. I saw a very little girl turn a somersault, then beam with delight — and surprise. A slightly older girl was turning cartwheels for her astonished relatives, who were saying things like, “I had no idea you could do that!” And another kid was frog-hopping through the crowd just because. That’s what inspiration looks like. These kids were running on the high of seeing young ‘uns like themselves on the stage, dancing acrobatically, performing their socks off, and loving it.

And, of course, respect for kids is what Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, which is how the piece is formally known, is all about.

In the story, nine-year-old Matilda’s parents are relentlessly mean to her because she’s a girl and because she reads.Matilda’s dad, Mr. Wormwood, insists on calling her a boy. And her peroxided mom complains, “It’s not normal for a girl to be all thinking.” Fortunately, Matilda finds allies in the local librarian Miss Phelps, and in a teacher at her new school, Miss Honey. But there’s also a new villain, the school’s headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, a former hammer thrower who refers to children as maggots.

Yes, there’s horror in this. But it’s the delicious kind. The girl sitting with her dad in front of us — about nine years old and clearly a Matilda connoisseur — was relishing every minute of it. And with good reason. The evil characters are so broad that they’re fun. When Miss Honey tries to stop Miss Trunchbull from pulling a little guy’s ears, for instance, Trunchbull replies, “I have discovered, Miss Honey, that the ears of small boys don’t come off. They stretch.” And, onstage, they do stretch — like Silly Putty. Kids love grossness and cartoon monsters. And, like adults, they need to master fear. Besides, we all have faith in Matilda.

Eleven-year-old Siggi Kaldestad is phenomenal as the show’s small heroine. She has the chops and confidence of a Broadway star. Her pitch is spot on. There’s an appealing little rasp in her voice. She’s knows how to be still when she needs to be: her delivery of the song “Quiet”, which is about what happens to Matilda when her anger becomes unberable, is one of the highlights of this production. And Kaldestad knows how to sell her material theatrically when that’s what’s called for: when Matilda is improvising a fantastical story about an acrobat and an escape artist for Miss Phelps, for instance.

All the kids in the large chorus are a joy to watch. No doubt thanks largely to their director, Stephanie Graham, whose touch is impeccable throughout, they’re confident, and they know that being onstage should always be fun.

Besides, these kids are so well prepared that they’re able to whip off Krystal Kiran’s choreography with aplomb. And that choreography is so textured and dynamic. There’s all sorts of counterpoint in the movement — between synchrony and asynchrony in group routines for instance. And the stage pictures are stacked with surprises, the way one of the older boys just  hurls around one of the little girls, for instance, and the sudden appearance of things like twirling balls.

There are excellent performances among the adults as well. Playing the lowlife Mr. Wormood, Victor Hunter’s work is just about as big as the night sky over Malkin Bowl, but it’s never pushed: it’s always human, so it stays surprising — and, even, in unexpected moments, moving. Terrific.

Madeleine Suddaby is also delightfully coarse as Mrs. Wormwood. And Jyla Robinson delivers flat-out villainy as Trunchbull.

Carrying the more sympathetic side of the equation, Paula Higgins is touchingly naturalistic — and pure-voiced — as Miss Honey.

I’ve also got to mention Jaren Guerreiro’s turn as Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood’s Latin dance partner. Clothed in a skin-tight black ensemble — with a semi-sheer top — by costumer Christine Reimer, Guerreiro’s Rudolpho is consumed by the artistry of his own pelvic swivels. 

Speaking of Reimer’s costumes, they’re excellent. On its own, Mr. Wormwood’s purple plaid suit would be worth the price of admission.

Less successfully, designer Brian Ball’s set is speaking two languages — and they’re incompatible. The background consists of abstract modernist arches that echo the curve of Malkin Bowl’s architecture. That’s mildly interesting, but the overall effect of these opaque structures is blank and bland. And they’re not in a productive conversation with Ball’s other idea. In his design’s second element, giant books open to create interior and exterior locations that are rendered like watercolour illustrations. They’re lovely. I wish I’d just seen these pieces on their own.

But that’s my only real criticism. Robert Sondergaard’s lighting is suitably melodramatic. Under Lia Wolfe’s musical direction, the orchestra is tight. And, with the help of Adam Henderson’s dialect coaching, virtually everybody onstage masters a credible English accent. Go, kids!

Besides, thematically, Matilda is one of my favourite pieces of musical theatre. Emotionally, Matilda is abandoned by her parents, but the point of the story is her resilience. Psychologically, Matilda is a self-realizing little radical. From her reading, she has understood that, in life, you can change the narrative you’ve been given. In Tim Minchin’s lyrics for “Naughty”, she sings: “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./ Even if you’re little, you can do a lot, you/ Mustn’t let a little thing like, ‘little’ stop you/ If you sit around and let them get on top, you/ Might as well be saying/ You think that it’s okay/ And that’s not right!/ And if it’s not right!/ You have to put it right!”

Let’s make that the national anthem, shall we?

Many thanks to all the kids and adults who have worked and are working so hard to deliver this inspiring show.

ROALD DAHL’S MATILDA THE MUSICAL Book by Dennis Kelly. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Directed by Stephanie Graham. On Friday, July 14. A Theatre Under the Stars production. Running in rep at Malkin Bowl until August 26. Tickets and info

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