Courtesy of the Croswell Opera House
As delightful, charming, and spirited as the 1996 film, “Matilda,” based off of the children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, has recently been gifted with the musical treatment. After runs across the pond in London as well as in New York, the Croswell Opera House is one of the first venues in Michigan to put on “Matilda: The Musical" and it’s a quirky, oddball musical that embraces the notion that being different is okay.
"Matilda" is arguably one of the most satisfying musicals to land on the Croswell stage, and in many ways alleviates even the mildest of expectations. After all, the show is based on a book, which was turned into a beloved movie and that doesn’t always equate solid results- but that’s where “Matilda” thrives, with its traditional aspects and beaming personality. And who better to put on a show about “Revolting Children” than director Julianne Dolan, who made a hit out of a big, kid friendly, ensemble in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” found new avenues to make “The Wizard of Oz” seem fresh last December, and gave us the delightful “She Loves Me” two summers ago.
It would seem the Adrian native was made for a show like this, and I can’t help but think the Croswell didn’t pick this show without her in mind. Dolan has assembled an incredible cast of performers (especially the young ones!) and a strong crew to help create a wonderful playground of exploration that’ll entice both children and adults alike.
“Matilda” is about the importance of stories, books, and language and the relationships they help us create, as well as their ability to help survive the tribulations of childhood. And, when we see Crosby Slupes’ wonderful projections on display (most notably that of the alphabet) we’re reminded there’s magic in everyday learning.
The bright and efficient book by Dennis Kelly, and catchy songs by Tim Minchin, keep “Matilda” from going too deep into “Sesame Street” territory. In fact, it’s an exhilarating example of empowerment among the youth of this generation. Tastefully designed by the always consistent Doug Miller, who creates a massive canvas of books and trampolines to give the kiddos plenty to work with, matched in strides by choreographer Sarah Nowak, “Matilda” perfectly encapsulates the joy, wonder, and also the unplesantries of childhood.
You know, the bullies, the first day of school, and the one teacher who lurks around waiting to pounce on all your anxieties.
In this case, that teacher happens to be the sniveling and tyrannical Miss Trunchbull - (played in drag by Jared Hoffert pulling plenty of punches in his scene stealing performance) - who seemingly exists solely to break down the titular character’s defenses. In his performance, Hoffert inspires much fear and trepidation playing the hulky character, though he is able to find the line between cruel and parody.
But standing toe to toe with the larger than life Hoffert - and keeping up with him beat for beat - is Sophia Bernard, a third grader plucked from Maumee Valley Country Day School in her Croswell debut, as Matilda, and enough can’t be said about how perfect, organic, and downright infectious she is leading the charge in this two and a half hour production (it should be noted: in the initial runs of “Matilda: The Musical,” there were three actresses playing Matilda in rotation, and Bernard, like a champ, will tackle the role each performance at the Croswell).
I’m not kidding.
At intermission, I was absolutely awestruck at the spunky stage presence and ace vocals on this young actress as she moved ceaselessly between each demanding song and dance sequence. Barley stopping to take a breath after each tune, I got to thinking how difficult this would be for any actor to accomplish, which makes Bernards efforts all the more impressive.
The narrative is fairly similar to the previous adaptations, except “Matilda: The Musical” is able to explore, tweak, and deepen your understanding of the material. Per usual, it starts with Matilda’s less than peachy home life. Mr. Wormwood (flawlessly embodied by Chris Stack in a gut busting performance) is a sleazy car salesman who wished he had another boy to accompany his doofus of a son (Oden Berthelsen). Matilda’s mother, Mrs. Wormwood (Lucy Garno Hagedorn - wonderful) is a shining example of a klutz living well beyond her means and thriving on ballroom dancing competitions (Steven Kiss scores howls of laughter playing her seductive dance partner appropriately named Rudolpho).
The obsessive, and dim-witted parentels can’t stand (or comprehend) how their 5-year-old is always reading Dickens or Dostoyevsky (in which, she learned Russian to read the book in its native language!) but little do they know it’s the only escape she gets in this world. And the audience is allowed into that insight during her first solo: “Naughty” - which might as well be an anthem for all elementary aged students everywhere.
When not at home, Matilda enjoys conjuring fantasies, whether that be to her local librarian Mrs. Phelps (engagingly played by Reina Mystique) or as a means to save her friends at school from Trunchbull’s wrath - who keeps an isolated dungeon called “The Chokey” for students who misbehave, and is constantly pushing the school’s motto: “Children are Maggots.”
Of course, there’s the gentle and kind-hearted schoolteacher Miss. Honey (a lovely Aja Andre) who is the sole beacon of sunshine in a place infested with darkness, eventually becoming Matilda’s mentor upon realizing she’s far too gifted to be stuck in a basic classroom. Andre and Bernard have a real warmth to each other that’ll perhaps spark memories you had with an influential teacher in your adolescence.
Those soft and tender moments are punctuated with a thoughtful score under the inspired leadership of music director Jonathan Sills and vocal director Wynne Marsh. (Plus they look great in Marianna Steele’s snappy costuming).
And man, do these kids sing.
The child performers all have broad and satisfying ranges to help belt the tunes loud and proud - (though some diction and English accents could be improved to better relay Minchin’s crafty lyrics) - giving real oomph to the songs “Revolting Children” and “Miracle,” both of which Nowak has staged with cunning movements under Tiff Crutchfield's artful lighting design, and Chris Goosman’s tasteful sound mixing.
Still, even with all those elements in its corner, “Matilda” leaves plenty for the imagination and self discovery. For some, this could be their first taste of “Matilda” and in that case, the Croswell has struck gold with the casting of Bernard and company. Mixed in with witty songs and Dolan’s delicate handle on childhood development, “Matilda” isn’t just a magical, interactive evening at the theatre, it’s a first-rate reminder of how important it is to take control of our own stories and to have some fun along the way.
IF YOU GO:
MATILDA runs through September 29th at The Croswell Oprea House. To purchase tickets and view showtimes click here