The whirlwind of a child’s nightmare, with a dim flashlight of hope under the canopy of childlike imagination, set the tone for “Matilda The Musical”—now playing at ZACH Theatre.
With this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s darkly-inspiring children’s book, “Matilda,” directors Abe Reybold and Nat Miller stay true to the original dystopian essence with powerful musical punch and eccentric caricatures. The story’s juxtaposition presents a precarious balancing task for any director.
Refusing to gloss over real-world trauma, Reybold and Miller don’t compromise their message for the sake of young minds. Instead, they rest on a story line of internal resiliency and collective triumph over larger-than-life villains. Reybold and Miller seek to inspire a delightful fear, infused with a narrative of power and triumph.
“We tried to add whimsy and theatrical devices when appropriate to help offset the darkness of this contemporary fairy tale. We wanted to engage young audiences with heightened physicality and stage craft. The scenic design landed on an environment that helped our storytelling by allowing us to move quickly and specifically from location to location within the mutable childlike world.”Abe Reybold
The result? A fast-paced, interactive mind warp into a child’s darkest fears and whispered dreams. “Matilda the Musical” is set within a quirky compound disguised as a school; a madhouse masquerading as a home; infiltrated by authoritative monsters cloaked as caregivers. The plot is uncomfortable while seething with satisfaction, and technical mastery leaves the senses wildly entertained.
Artistic Mastery of Dark Gusto
Using the art from the book as inspiration, set director Michelle Nye utilizes Reybold’s vision of chalkboards to create a world that honors the darkness of the story, while honing an impish glow.
This Alcatraz-like British boarding school is dressed in dark and drab with visually understated messages of “HELP” etched into the backdrop. Accents of luminous color move the audience’s emotions from pathos to fantasy and even joy—adding a magical component reflective of a child’s imagination.
Physical upstaging and changes in stature enhance the tiny heroine’s voice and power. The set cleaves to a steady resiliency opaque to chaos. However, the simple movability of the set keeps the pace upbeat, providing staging essential to Matilda’s parallel fantasy world and heroine spotlight.
The orchestra, hidden from view under stage, packs incredible punch, especially during songs such as “Revolting Children,” when both musicians and the ZACH children’s ensemble elicit fight, fury, and electrifying gusto.
“The musical adaptation is very smart and did a lot of the work for us in appealing to a broad audience range. Roald Dahl has a great quote on writing for young readers and we used that as inspiration. He writes about remaining ‘unconventional, funny, inventive, magical, eccentric’ and above all ‘quick paced.’ We continually considered the age of our young audiences and created our production with their sensibilities at the forefront.”Abe Reybold
Zany Talent Brings Horror, Strength, and Humor
ZACH pre-professional students Alexa Nelan and Chloe Van De Graaf play rotating Matilda roles. Nelan brings to life the tiniest heroine with the steadiest voice. With impeccable timing, a bright voice, and gumption throughout the production, Nelan shines as a young rising star Matilda—showing depth and range beyond her years.
Matilda’s teacher Miss Honey, played by Laura Lyman Payne, radiates kindness and a quivering voice as she attempts to stand up to Trunchbull. In her two solos “Pathetic” and “This Little Girl,” Payne serendipitously blends the insecure quality of her character with strength, moving from a delicate to clear vocal, bathed in angelic, iridescent tone.
Many would view Miss Trunchbull as Miss Honey’s foil, as she is every bit as evil as Miss Honey is loving. However, each time Miss Honey speaks, my attention lasers to Matilda’s contrasting strength of character.
Despite both characters maintaining kind dispositions despite their inflicted trauma, Miss Honey—a tall authority figure with a very tiny voice, is petrified to stand up to Miss Trunchbull. All the while Matilda, with a tiny stature and no power, projects a stout and certain voice. In several scenes, Miss Honey fights with herself to speak up. You never see this in Matilda’s character, whom by all accounts is unapologetically brave and fearless in voice and sense of self when confronting both her parents and Miss Trunchbull.
The antagonist, Miss Trunchbull, played by ZACH regular J. Robert “Jimmy” Moore, brings a wildly peculiar and comic edge of evil to the role. His commanding voice and presence demand laughable fear in the audience—in a good, but very weird way.
Other larger-than-life villains, with gigantic and ridiculous personalities, include Matilda’s mother and father, played by Sarah Burke and Andre Martin. With slight alterations from the original book, the bingo addict and neglectful mom are transformed into disco-dancing, narcissistic, verbally abusive characters.
Quirky extras like Mrs. Phelps the librarian (Lara Wright) bring a positive hilarity to listeners in Matilda’s world. ZACH’s pre-professional company, acting as the ensemble of classmates, conquers Tim Minchin’s intense vocals and Jen Young Mahlstedt’s complex choreographer. The upper classmates provide a bridge between the stark contrast of right and wrong, seen in the more polarizing villains and heroes. Matilda’s classmates offer another humorous buffer to the intensity of the narrative.
Gritty Children’s Musical Brings Larger Messages to Life
Leaving the musical entranced by the talent and a touch exhausted by the cathartic rollercoaster, I glanced at my young daughter wondering what we should take away from this. I inquired from the directors themselves, “What important messages and talking points can this musical bring to life in terms of child abuse, and the type of bullies that children aren’t really talked to about?”
Nat Miller responded,
“Matilda is able to overcome the bullies in her life, not by getting revenge, but by finding kind and loving people. Through her intelligence, kindness, and perseverance is she able to triumph. This is a play about celebrating the intelligence, resilience, and imagination of young people, and I think it works very well when seen through that lens.”Nat Miller
And I think I agree. It is important that children learn not all adults are the good guys—even parents. In a world that oftentimes talks down to young children and assumes life has to have glitter to be palatable to young minds, I enjoy the depth of topic in “Matilda the Musical.”
And when swallowed with a touch of dark humor to add entertainment value? Well, honestly, it’s a confusing experience, but oddly enjoyable and profound.
What You Need to Know
- Age Recommendation: 6+
- Location: Topfer at ZACH Theatre (202 S. Lamar Blvd.)
- Run time: Two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission
- Dates: Running until May 12, 2019
For showtimes and tickets, go to the ZACH website.
@theAustinot wants to know:
What musical would you love to see ZACH bring to you next?