Roald Dahl, one of the very best of Twentieth Century writers, is well known for such ever-popular children’s stories as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and, of course, Matilda. He also wrote thrillers and chillers. One of his short stories, which I read as a teenager, The Visitor, appeared in Playboy Magazine. Its plot line and oh-my-god climax is still etched in my memory. One of the delights of his children’s books is the funny, dark, edgy, scariness of them. Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the Musical, adapted by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, has those effervescent qualities in spades.
Matilda (the amazing Lucy Bollier, who shares the role with Olivia Marcum on alternating performances) is born into a wretched family of low-life grifters who abuse the girl through neglect. Her mother, Mrs. Wormwood (Janna Cardia) spends her time practicing competitive dancing with her ever-gyrating partner, Rudolpho (John Paul Batista), while her father, Mr. Wormwood (agile, hilarious, over-the-top James Larsen) peddles old cars as new. Matilda’s older brother, Michael (the surprising Nick McKenna), lounges watching the telly.
At school, the five-and-a-half year old Matilda, stands out as short and wicked smart, a precocious girl who has read the great books, and knows her timetables, seemingly up to infinity. The warm, lovely, insecure first grade teacher, Miss Honey (golden voiced Katie Deshan) quickly learns that Matilda is a prodigy and tries to shield her from the odious head mistress, Miss Trunchbull (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper in muscular drag), a former hammer throw champion who despises children. Matilda finds a friend in warmhearted Mrs. Phelps (Deanna Anthony), the librarian who is enchanted by a story the young girl spins on the fly.
Directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld, Matilda, the Musical is a big show with a cast of thirty performers who sing and dance their hearts out. The school kids are made up of two groups, older meaner students, and the smaller, younger kids. The choreography of Heather Castillo is a knockout, grounded, edgy and angular, executed by the cast with unflagging energy. The vocal work (musical direction by Jennifer Lin) by the older cast is as professionally competent as one could expect. The younger cast will amaze you as they did me.
For the record, the cast also features (in alphabetical order): J.B. Bauersfeld, Jared Cardiel, Ben Carroll, Renee Cohen, Joah Ditto, Maya Galipeau, Josh Golombek, Iyana Hannans, Tyler Luff, Carolyn Lupin, Julia Marley, Luke Pryor, Monica Ricketts, Nico Ridino, Glory Rose, Drew Rosen, Marcello Silva, Taylor Lynda Thomas, Tyler Marie Watkins and Olivia Zenetzis.
As good as the show is, there are sound problems. Often the lyrics are difficult to understand, perhaps from an imbalance between the orchestra and the vocalists, or the vigor of the action. Some overlapping duets between an adult and a child are indistinct. The amplified sound is occasionally strident. This is my first time seeing a show in the 1800-seat, Broadway scale Fred Kavli Theatre, so I have no way of knowing if this a problem for just this show, or an acoustical flaw in the building itself.
That said, the opening night crowd loved this show, as I do. At curtain call, there was a slow rise to stand, but when the kids burst out, the rest of the audience jumped up in a true standing ovation.
The scenic design by Stephen Gifford (lighting design by Jose Santiago) consists of giant thirty-foot high bookshelves that move in and out as necessary, re-enforcing the literary roots of the show. A motivated cast pushes the movable scenery, sliding the pieces in and out quickly and efficiently. Other members of the design team are sound designer Jonathan Burke, costume designer Noelle Raffy, props designer Kevin Williams, hair and wig designer Jessica Mills, and make-up designer Debbie Bryan. Production stage manager Talia Krispel manages the stage with a sure hand.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the Musical runs through March 31 in the Fred Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Bank of America Performing Arts Center, at 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Thousand Oaks.