6/18/2022        MATILDA: THE MUSICAL                                Atlanta Lyric Theatre

REVOLTING GROWN-UPS

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Roald Dahl, British spymaster and author, creator of Chocolate Factories and Giant Peaches and chronicler of Witches and Foxes and Twits and BFG’s, was a keen observer of the horrors clueless adults inflict upon the cleverest of children.  And yet, somehow, even his darkest of tales usually end with brilliant comeuppance for the villains and Dickensian good fortune for the children,  At least the unbratty and unselfish and well-behaved children.

 

In fact, he begins one of his most popular books, hereinafter referred to as Matilda (for self-apparent reasons), with a diatribe against proud and doting parents of the most undeserving and horrid little beasts, even imagining the glee teachers of such wretched larval humans must feel when they can poetically vent while writing end-of-term reports,   This is a most ironic beginning because Mr. Dahl quickly turns his attention to that most remarkable of little girls, one Matilda Wormwood, whose parents buck the usual trend by being revolted by and dismissive of their shining light of a daughter.

 

Matilda, by age four has taught herself to read, and has discovered the local library. What follows is a rapturous wallow in books and story, a quick devouring of ALL the children’s books (her favorite, like mine, being The Secret Garden) and a quick graduation to the classics of Dickens and Austen and Brontë (all of them, even Anne).  But every Edenic childhood has a serpent, and for young Matilda, it is time. When she reaches the age of five, she gets sent to school.  Not your ordinary American public school, but a proper British public school, which is to say a private preparatory with its uniformed students, its overwhelmed and sympathetic teachers, and its overwhelming and sadistic headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull.

Is there any Dahl book more fitting for a grand and glorious Musical Theatre adaptation?  I think not! (The Pasek and Paul scored James and the Giant Peach notwithstanding). 

 

First staged in 2010 by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, it quickly moved to the West End (2011) and Broadway (2013), where it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning five.  Coming for Christmas will be a Netflix movie version of the musical, but, in the meantime, a visit to Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s production would be a spot-on smart choice for a sparkling time and a glorious escape from a Georgia summer.

 

As expected, most of the grown-ups are truly revolting, with Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood trying to charm us with their emotional abuse and self-centered cruelties. The Trunchbull is every child’s absolute worst nightmare of an authority figure.  Only the sympathetic teacher, Miss Honey, and the eccentric librarian, Mrs. Phelps, emerge as mentors and allies.

 

Throughout the show is an overwhelming sense of Bibliophilia, a love of books and reading that translate to a set dominated by towering library shelves, furnishings designed like stacks of books, and alphabet blocks used as school seats.   How can a bookworm like me fail to be seduced and enthralled?

 

A recurring plot line is Matilda’s story time with Mrs., Phelps, in which she spins a tale of an Acrobat and an Escapologist, who want nothing more than to be loving parents to their own little girl.  Of course, Matilda is composing and improvising as she goes, so I will leave it to you to discover how that particular narrative weaves into the main plotline with elegance and ease and not a little magic.

 

The score (by Pop Musician Tim Minchin) is not exactly my cup of tea, with few memorable melodies.  It is, however, somehow evocative of the ethos of Dahl, and builds to an absolutely unforgettable anthem, “Revolting Children,” which is breathtaking in its impact and amazing in its staging.  In fact, all of the stagings (by director Bethany Irby and choreographer Kari Twyman, bring out the absolute best in the mostly pre-adolescent cast, particularly Marissa Bondurant in the title role.  Ms. Bondurant positively oozes intelligence and patience, without losing any of that childlike brattiness and sass that so revolts Mr. Dahl, the Wormwoods, and the Trunchbull. 

 

In supporting roles are some major adult talent:  the radiant Brandy Bell as Miss Honey, the off-the-wall eccentric Mya Burns as Mrs. Phelps, Meaghan Gallagher Paetkau and David Rosetti as the Wormwoods, Ian Adams as Matilda’s older brother, Fenner Eaddy as Rodolpho, and Timothy Ellis as Agatha Trunchbull.  I have to confess that I’m not enamored of the idea of Trunchbull being played by a man in drag – it’s like saying it takes a man to be cruel and sadistic – so I was happy to see that in the upcoming movie, the role is being taken on by Emma Thompson (who, judging by the trailer, is being made up to look like a man in drag.  Oh Well! Small steps, my friends, small steps).

 

But it’s the ensemble of young folk who are the true stars here.  And every single one deserves a mention:  Kayla Furie (Lavender), Owen Jacobs (Nigel), Gigi McClenning (Tommy), Adrienne Ocfemia (Amanda), Vaishal Raol (Hortensia), Carson O. Shelton (the cake-loving Bruce), Jacob Sherman (Eric), and Elizabeth Windley (Alice)

 

Let’s not short-change the equally talented Teen Ensemble:  Karah Adams, Erin Eames, Elliott Furie, Grant Martin, and Kiersten Wallace

 

Or, for that matter, the adult ensemble: Cynthia Caldwell, James Kennedy, Courtney Locke, Emma Ruth Matthews (the Acrobat), Matt McCubbin (the Escapologist). Kari Twyman, Alexander Williams (Sergei), and Deshawn Williams (Doctor)

 

Matilda: The Musical has proven to be very popular, especially with families and repeat viewers and has enjoyed several national tours and local theatre productions.  Although this was my first experience with it, I have read the book and the 1996 movie was (and remains) a favorite of my daughter, so I was not exactly a newcomer to the story.   That being said, The Lyric’s production deserves to be a sell-out, as this cast and creative crew have pulled out the stops, and revoting grown-ups aside, have filled their stage with memorable characters and a climax that redeems (in my ears) the score and sends us out of the theatre NOT wanting to crush the spirit of the next child we meet.

 

  --  Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol,com   #AtlantaLyricTheatre #Matilda)