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Matilda
Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Orchestrations and Additional Music by Chris Nightingale
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
August 5, 2019

Mattea Conforti (center), Laura Michelle Kelly (right) and cast
Photo: The Muny

The final show in the Muny’s 101st season is a production of one my favorite 21st Century musicals, which is being billed as Roald Dahl’s Matilda. That’s accurate, since it’s a much lauded, award-winning adaptation of Dahl’s modern classic book. Still, this production might also accurately be described as “Mary Engelbreit’s Matilda” in terms of its overall look and style. That look is entirely intentional on the Muny’s part, and St. Louis’s own Engelbreit has worked with the designers to develop its theme. It’s also a resounding success, not just visually but in the entire production itself, which manages to fit the show into Engelbreit’s style while also preserving the overall tone of Dahl’s work and that of the original creators of the musical. It’s visually stunning, certainly, but it’s also a triumph of music, performance, and overall whimsical energy.

Also the source material was adapted into a popular film in 1996, although the musical is directly based on the book rather than the film. The tone is bold, whimsical, and in keeping with Dahl’s usual style, focuses on darker themes while also showing good characters along with the bad. The intelligent, talented Matilda Wormwood (Mattea Conforti) is born into a family who not only doesn’t appreciate her talents and interests–her self-centered, materialistic parents (Josh Grisetti and Ann Harada) actively discourage and disparage them, spending most of their time on their own pursuits and doting on their older child Michael (Trevor Michael Schmidt), who seems to spend most his time watching TV, playing video games, and repeating his parents’ words. The five-year-old Matilda takes refuge in reading books far beyond her grade level, and telling stories to the encouraging librarian Mrs. Phelps (Darlesia Cearcy). When Matilda starts school, she goes to the imposing Crunchem Hall, presided over by the imperious, vindictive headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Beth Malone). Matilda does manage to make friends, gaining influence despite Miss Trunchbull’s efforts to undermine her, and develops a bond with her kind but insecure teacher Miss Honey (Laura Michelle Kelly), who also lives in fear of Miss Trunchbull but is determined to help Matilda. Meanwhile, Matilda continues to tell her stories to Mrs. Phelps, and this tale–concerning an Escapologist (Colby Dezelick) and an Acrobat (Gabi Stapula) who fall in love and get married–ends up tying in to the rest of the story in a surprising manner.

The tone is somewhat dark throughout much of the show, with a brilliant book by Dennis Kelly and the clever, ingenious lyrics by composer Tim Minchin, focusing on themes of bullying vs. acceptance, selfishness vs. kindness, and independence vs. coerced conformity, centering on the singular figure of one bold, unconventional girl and her influence on the world around her, as well as on the trials, disappointments, aspirations, and joys of childhood and the influence of people’s childhood experiences and environment on the adults they become.

It’s a remarkable show in its own right, but this production is not like you may have seen it before. In contrast to the Muny’s earlier (and excellent) staging of Kinky Boots, which was essentially a re-creation of the Broadway production, this Matilda looks very different to its London and Broadway productions, although it retains much of the tone and general movement style, reflected in John Tartaglia’s direction and Beth Crandall’s superb choreography.  The look and style are inspired by Engelbreit, who was in the audience on opening night. It’s a vividly realized vision, with versatile sets by Paige Hathaway, colorful costumes by Leon Dobkowski, dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and clever video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, all working together to achieve a world very much in keeping with both Dahl’s tone and Engelbreit’s visual work. It works very well for this show, which also features an excellent Muny Orchestra led by music director Michael Horsley, giving energetic life to Minchin’s wonderful score.

The cast here is also stellar, led by the fantastically talented young Conforti as the brave, precocious Matilda. Having played the role on Broadway, Conforti has the presence and energy of a seasoned performer, bringing a straightforward boldness and an excellent voice to the part. Malone, as the crass, vicious Trunchbull, is also a standout with an imposing presence and great vocals on songs like “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion”. She’s also the first woman I’ve seen play the role, which has been more often played by a man. Other standouts include the always excellent Kelly as a particularly sympathetic Miss Honey, Grisetti as the gleefully smarmy Mr. Wormwood, Harada as self-absorbed Mrs. Wormwood, and Sean Ewing in a hilariously physical performance as Mrs. Wormwood’s ballroom dance partner, Rudolpho. There are also some strong performances from the show’s child performers, especially Owen Hanford as the determined Bruce Bogtrotter, and Ella Grace Roberts as Matilda’s self-appointed best friend, Lavender. The ensemble is impressive, as well, particularly the youth ensemble, who perform with much energy and attitude on group numbers like “School Song”, “When I Grow Up”, and the artfully confrontational “Revolting Children”. The dancing is energetic and precise, as is the staging, in keeping with the style of the show, and the result is energetic, engaging, and supremely entertaining.

This is a Matilda like I’ve never seen it before, even though I had seen the production once in London and once on tour here in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre. With a first-rate cast and a superb sense of style inspired by the work of Mary Engelbreit, this show is sure to engage hearts and minds. It’s a wonderful way to conclude the excellent, newly energized 101st season at the Muny.

Beth Malone (center) and cast
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Matilda in Forest Park until August 11, 2019

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