Sometimes it’s okay to be a little naughty when standing up to what’s right.
That’s what genius five-year-old Matilda (played by Sarah McKinley Austin, Lilly Brooks O’Briant and Savanna Grace Elmer depending on the performance) learns as she wades through immorality and cruelty at home with her “bookworm”-hating eccentric dance-obsessed mother (Cassie Silva) and scamming car salesman father (Quinn Mattfeld) and at school facing intolerable and intimidating Olympic hammer throw champion and Crunchem Hall Headmistress Miss Trunchbull (David Abeles).
Roald Dahl’s Tony Award-winning musical “Matilda” opened at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford Wednesday and runs through Sunday, May 1.
While the movie rendition focuses heavily on Matilda’s discovery of her magical powers to move objects with her eyes, that is only a small part of the musical. The stage version is much darker and digs deeper into the psyche and layers the child’s perspective with serious and mature themes from the adult world.
The most captivating part of Matilda’s abilities besides her telekinesis, intelligence and rebelling shenanigans, from getting her dad to dye his hair green to super-gluing his hat, is her storytelling talents. Sometimes what Matilda says comes from things she’s experienced in her life that she seemingly fictionalizes into the tragic tale about the acrobat and the escape artist. Other times she tells lies so innocent and yet so believable and calculated to protect victims like her fellow students targeted by Trunchbull, using deceptive means to accomplish a greater purpose of good. Sometimes she tells lies she wishes she believes, like telling the librarian and her teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) that her parents lover her so much and tell her how special she is. In those minutes she shields her heart from the outside world.
Her stories are very disturbing and troublesome, containing much deeper material than the mind of your average 5-year-old normally generates. Yet her stories are captivating, particularly to quirky, imaginative librarian Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones), who is always begging Matilda for more, reversing the normal relationship between adult and child.
Unlike in the movie, the story of the acrobat (Ashley Elizabeth Hale) and escape artists (Justin Packard), perhaps symbolizing better, loving forms her own parents, becomes a central motif to the story. It comes to Matilda piece by piece, much to the eager Mrs. Phelps’ dismay, and surprises its author most of all when Matilda realizes the story she is telling is based on a real childhood tragedy of another major character. I’ll try not to spoil it for you by telling you who. That’s just one way the play presents the mystique of the imagination and the process of telling a story.
The set and lighting in “Matilda” help bring the magic to life, especially when the set is woven into the choreography like the swings or when two of the actors climb the Crunchem Hall gate, stepping on letter blocks other actors push into place right as they become lit. The gradual disappearance of Trunchbull’s chocolate cake as Bruce (Ryan Christopher Dever) devours it remains a mystery, though I have my theories!
Bruce’s paper airplane landed in the front row at another point in the show and I was impressed that it wasn’t just a paper airplane made of any old paper. It actually was made of his report card even though you wouldn’t normally see that from the audience. That’s how detailed this production is.
The ensemble is a key ingredient to bringing “Matilda” to life, with many of the adult actors doubling as the older children at the school, showing that there still is the wonderment of a child in all of us. I saw this play on Broadway a couple years ago when it first came to the U.S. after debuting in England and I was still impressed by the phenomenal dancing of the children, all moving in dynamic and powerful adult-like jerky movements that are so precise and controlled. They also told stories with the expressions on their faces which were so emphatic they added character and emotion. One of them, a tiny expressive blond girl with pig tails, did not even flinch when Abeles swung her around by the pigtails. The children fearlessly vaulted, somersaulted and flipped in a phys ed scene enforced by the Trunchbull, as did Abeles.
Speaking of Abeles, he takes on one of the great, memorable stage roles of a woman cast as a male (like Mrs. Turnblad in “Hairspray, for instance), often intended as a vehicle for comedy. And he delivers that all the while playing his character straight and terrifying because he’s recognizably a guy.
In contrast, Jennifer Blood is gentle and sweet as Miss Honey. Her voice is as pure as her character.
More emphasis is placed on character voices and movement than sweet singing in a lot of the vocals, which are often accented and chaotic, but that is what makes the production so captivating. The opening birthday scene when all of the children, dressed in outfits from princesses to Spiderman, are saying what “my mommy says” in shrill succession, it sets up the importance of family and parenthood while also likening the dynamics to madness.
One of the funniest characters in the show doesn’t say much at all and that is Matilda’s dimwitted brother, Michael (Danny Tieger), whose high-pitched exclamations of single words as he keeps his eyes wide and fixed on the “telly” are priceless.
Silva’s urgency as Mrs. Wormwood to get to her ballroom dancing competition after asking her doctor why she’s fat on the day she gives birth to Matilda and Mr. Wormwood’s denial that Matilda isn’t a boy (she’s a girl) when he can’t find her “fingy” are hilarious in their irony, setting up the whole twisted relationship between her and her parents.
Mattfeld has a “Rooster”-like quality (“Annie”) as the goofy sham man trying to be smart by deceiving “The Russians” by selling “knackered” cars for higher prices.
One of my favorite moments, and I might be biased, was leading back into intermission. Mattfield, accompanied by Tieger on tiny guitar (plink!), apologizes to the audience for what they have seen and says a seeming disclaimer that children should not do these things at home (like super-gluing a hat or mixing bleach into hair product to make someone’s locks green). “I’m of course talking about reading books.” He then asked the adults in the audience to raise their hands if they’ve read a book. This reviewer, sitting dead center in the front row, raised her hand and so he called on me and asked my name. Then he proceeded to taunt me by calling me a book worm. All in good jest of course and I was honored to be worked into a Broadway series production! He said goodbye to me when he left the stage. I thoroughly enjoyed the audience interaction and breaking of the fourth wall!
Oh, and Quinn? Have you checked your hair product for real? How is it getting that hat off your head? Psych!
Lavendar also breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience to foreshadow putting a newt in the Trunchbull’s water, but refusing to tell us as she runs on and off stage, ultimately bursting out the truth. Much like many children’s capabilities of keeping secrets and sense of pride in the parts they play in their stories!
I also enjoyed Nigel’s reactions, capturing the severity of the moments.
Michael Graceffa was a caricature of sexy as Mrs. Wormwood’s dance partner Rudolpho, committed to the dance in his excessive expressions and exaggerated movements.
This “Matilda” is very different from the movie and it’s sensory elements like strobe lights at times could prove difficult to children or audience members who are sensitive to those features (including a laser Chokey). Otherwise Matilda has something for the adults and kids to enjoy with both a high-energy and deeply meaningful production.
“Matilda” runs through May 1. For more information on how to get tickets, visit https://bushnell.org/events/matilda.