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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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Matilda, the Musical
Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Choreographed by Peter Darling
The Fox Theatre
October 22, 2015

Mabel Tyler, Jennifer Blood Photo by Joan Marcus Matilda National Tour

Mabel Tyler, Jennifer Blood
Photo by Joan Marcus
Matilda National Tour

I love Matilda the Musical. I was immediately impressed with this remarkable, cleverly staged and incredibly well-written show when I saw it in London three years ago. I was looking forward to getting to see the National Tour at the Fox, and I’m glad I got to see it again. I’m pleased to say that the show is as wonderful, mysterious, and magical as ever.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular book, Matilda tells the story of an unusual young girl who grows up neglected by parents who are too self-absorbed to appreciate her. Young Matilda Wormwood (Mabel Tyler) can already read novels before she starts school, but her parents are embarrassed by her as her mother (Cassie Silva) is preoccupied with preparing for ballroom dance contests and her father (Quinn Mattfeld) is making questionable business deals and watching television with his near-catatonic son, Michael (Danny Tieger). Matilda is left to spend the days at the library, telling stories to the appreciative and supportive librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones). Soon, however, Matilda has to go to school, where she makes some new friends and meets a sympathetic but socially awkward teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), and all the students live in fear of the domineering, gleefully menacing headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness). As Matilda’s stories begin to oddly echo reality, and as her world becomes more complex and challenging, Matilda is eventually compelled to take action and discover talents she didn’t even know she had.

As a show, I can’t say enough good things about Matilda. I already gushed enthusiastically in my review of the London production, and although the tour does make some necessary technical changes, the show is still as wondrous, compelling, clever, suspenseful, and magical as ever. The scaling down for the tour did take out some great effects, such as the desks rising out of the stage (they now slide in from the wings), but the dynamic staging,  choreography (by Peter Darling), striking color scheme and costumes (by Rob Howell, who also designed the set), are all recreated from the London and Broadway productions.  It’s a distinctive looking show, and sharply written as well, with a distinctly British sensibility that thankfully hasn’t been lost in the transfer across the pond. Dennis Kelly’s book is at turns witty, poignant, and occasionally chilling, with the joys, hopes, dreams, challenges, and fears of childhood on display in this remarkably rich story. Tim Minchin’s score, with memorable songs like “Naughty”, “School Song”, “When I Grow Up”, and “Revolting Children”, is top-notch, as well, and deserves all the praise it has received.

The cast here is excellent, as well. There are three young actresses (Mabel Tyler, Gabby Gutierrez, and Mia Sinclair Jenness) who alternate in the central role of Matilda. Tyler, the Matilda I saw, gives an excellent, gutsy performance, with just the right blend of toughness and vulnerability, as well as a good sense of comic timing a a strong singing voice that she employs well on her solos “Naughty” and “Quiet”.  Her classmates are well-played by a memorable ensemble including children and a few adult cast members dressed as children. Blood, as Miss Honey, is convincing, and her struggles to stand up for Matilda are sensitively played. Jones is also excellent as the other sympathetic adult in Matilda’s life, Mrs. Phelps. The unsympathetic adults are played in a much more cartoonish and over-the-top manner, as is fitting for a Dahl story. Silva and Mattfeld are both hilariously boorish as the Wormwoods, with Silva’s hilarious dance number “Loud” and Mattfeld’s ode of the joys of “Telly” standing out as comic highlights of the production. As the unrepentantly villainous Trunchbull, Ryness shines, managing to make a character with really no redeeming values incredibly entertaining to watch. His presence in the role is unmistakable, and he draws the audience’s eyes whenever he steps foot on stage. There were also memorable performances by Ian Michael Stuart and Natalie Wisdom as the subjects of Matilda’s recurring stories, the Escape Artist and the Acrobat. There’s a strong ensemble as well, lending support and maintaining the show’s level of energy and overall atmosphere throughout.

As far as I’m concerned, Matilda is one of the best new musicals of the past 20 years. After first witnessing its theatrical magic in London, I’ve been glad to see it gain success on Broadway and now on its first national tour. I’m pleased to see that the spirit of the show shines through on the tour, for the most part. I hope many St. Louisans take advantage of the opportunity to discover this remarkable show.

Bryce Ryness, Mabel Tyler, and the cast of Matilda Photo by Joan Marcus Matilda National Tour

Bryce Ryness, Mabel Tyler, and the cast of Matilda
Photo by Joan Marcus
Matilda National Tour

 The First National Tour of Matilda the Musical is running at the Fox Theatre until November 1, 2015.

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This time last month, I was in London.  I still wish I could have stayed longer, and that I can go more often.  London is such a vibrant city full of history,character and great theatre, and I was so glad to have been able to see so many shows on my latest trip.   In this entry, I was planning on reviewing two shows–one of the most exciting new shows I’ve ever seen as well as the one classic show that is probably my all-time favorite, but the sheer length of both reviews has made me decide to make this two entries instead of one.  I wanted to do justice to both of these wonderful productions. I felt so privileged to be able to see both, as well as all the shows I saw and the magnificent city itself.   I hope I will be able to get back there before too long, because there is always so much happening and because it’s London and I will never get tired of visiting there.  Here is my review of a very exciting and extremely popular new show:

Matilda the Musical

Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin

Choreographed by Peter Darling

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Cambridge Theatre, London

October 28, 2012

I almost didn’t get to see this show.  Matilda is the hottest ticket in London right now, and as I was preparing for my trip, I had tried to buy tickets in advance.  They were sold out on every website I tried.  Every day I looked at was sold out, but I had a friend who told me about the returns line, so I tried for that when I got to London.  I tried the Wednesday matinee, but there were no returns when I got there and I decided to get a ticket to Singin’ In the Rain instead.  I was very glad I saw that show, but I still wanted to see Matilda, and since I had a free day on the Sunday, I decided to try in earnest and wait in the line up until showtime if I had to, so I showed up an hour in advance expecting to wait.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to, because after about three minutes a woman walked up to me with two spare tickets and offered to sell me one.  I never found out her name, but I’m very grateful to her because, thanks to her, I was able to see one of the most exciting and creative musicals I have ever seen.

Matilda is based on the classic book by Roald Dahl, which I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read.  I haven’t even seen the movie.  All I knew is that it was a Dahl book and it was about a girl with special abilities and a mean teacher.  I was going into this show almost blind, and I’m actually glad because the whole unfolding sense of wonder as the story progressed was a major highlight of the experience of seeing it for me.

In the opening “Miracle” sequence highlighting some parents’ overindulgence of their children, we are introduced to Matilda Wormwood (Hayley Canham), an extraordinarily gifted young girl who is ignored and underappreciated by her materialistic and self-centered parents (Annette McLaughlin and Mark Goldthorp).  She learns to read at a very young age and is only encouraged in this by the local Librarian Mrs. Phelps (Melanie La Barrie), who likes to listen to Matilda’s stories.  Soon Matilda is sent to a school run by the overbearing and over-the-top evil Miss Trunchbull (David Leonard), where she makes friends with the other children and meets another encouraging adult, her teacher Miss Honey (Haley Flaherty), who has a dramatic childhood story of her own that mysteriously links her to Matilda.

This show has some of the most creative staging I’ve ever seen, and numbers like “School Song” with the different sized alphabet blocks being pushed through a grid to the rhythm of the song by cast members while other cast members climbed on them, and “When I Grow Up” with the kids on swings, were visually stunning.  I also thought the “Bruce” sequence, in which a boy is forced to undergo an unorthodox punishment by the evil Miss Trunchbull, was very well staged, as were the story sequences that Matilda narrates with the Escapologist and the Acrobat.

The set is colorful and whimsical, with the different sized alphabet blocks a prominent feature, and fun little touches like school desks that rise out of the floor, and towering shelves of books in the library.  Everything sets the mood perfectly, and childhood with all its adventure, joy, and mischief is represented as well as the very real sense of horror and menace personified by Miss Trunchbull.  There is also real spectacle with some clever special effects, but the real “special effect” is the overall atmosphere of the show, which runs the full gamut of feelings from fear to wonder and from loneliness to love.

The casting is universally excellent, and the child performers are simply amazing.  There is a rotating cast of child performers and I’m sure they are all wonderful.  The standouts for me were the remarkably talented Hayley Canham as Matilda, Elliot Reed as Bruce and Ella Yard as Matilda’s self-proclaimed best friend, Lavender. Canham especially is a wonder, bringing an earnestness and entirely unsentimental sympathy to the role. Her pain at being rejected by her parents is apparent, as is her hope for something better and her joy in reading and telling stories.  She also has a strong singing voice and performs her solo songs “Naughty” and “Quiet” extremely well.  The whole cast of children is extremely impressive as well.

As for the adult performers, the casting is also very strong and very energetic, with the standouts being La Barrie as the sympathetic Miss Phelps, Flaherty as the concientious, compassionate and self-doubting Miss Honey, and Goldthorp (the understudy) as Matilda’s television-obsessed father. Leonard as Miss Trunchbull was also outstanding, bringing a villainous energy and real sense of menace to the role.  It’s obvious why the children, and the adults, are terrified of this domineering, self-centered and sadistic character.

I loved how the writers of this show, from Dahl to the adapters, don’t condescend to children and seem to genuinely remember what it’s like to be a child in all its wonder and magic, as well as some genuine terror.  The joys, dreams and fears of children are aptly displayed here, and of the grown-ups (most notably Miss Honey and Mrs. Phelps) who still remember, as well as the self-absorption and over-the-top ridiculousness of the adults who don’t remember (Trunchbull, the Wormwoods), even though there is a small humanizing moment for Mr. Wormwood later in the the show.  The songs by Tim Minchin are wonderfully written, perfectly expressing the sentiments and situations.  All of the songs are excellent, but my favorites were “When I Grow Up”, the “School Song” and Matilda’s solos.  The “Telly” song by Mr. Wormwood and his son Michael (Nick Searle) at the beginning of the second act was a fun comic highlight as well.

I don’t know how to accurately describe how much I loved this show, and how privileged I felt to be able to witness this remarkable feat of new theatrical writing.  I hope this show is a symbol of the future of musical theatre, and that more shows with this degree of wit, charm and creativity will make their way to the West End and Broadway in the near future.  It’s basically an ideal show, and I am so glad that its sold-out status did not prevent me from seeing it.  I will remember this for years to come as one of the real highlights of this trip to London.  This show is due to open on Broadway early next year, and I hope it does as well.  It’s so distinctly British that I do worry a little bit that it might not be the wild success it has been in London, but I hope it is successful anyway.  It deserves to be a smash hit on both sides of the pond.

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