Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Matilda the Musical
National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Macbeth


Gabby Gutierrez and
Jennifer Bowles

Photo by Joan Marcus
Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical is among the most beloved books in the canon of children's literature. In 2012 it ranked number 30 among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal. It's easy to see why. Matilda the Musical provokes young readers (and older ones, too) to call out the inanity, dullness and hypocrisy in the adult world, to cultivate fantasies of exceptional abilities, and to find one's way to a loving home. It features a heroine who gets away with being naughty while remaining virtuous, a fabulously grotesque villain, and a raft of other colorful characters. It tells a totally engaging story, frosted in humor, that appeals to kids by respecting their intelligence and moral instincts.

The musical Matilda takes all those star qualities and lavishes them with lively, pumped up music, fantastic design on all fronts, ingenious choreography by Peter Darling (who took honors for his work on Billy Elliot) and a dazzling production directed by Matthew Warchus. Minnesota audiences are getting their first look at Matilda the Musical by way of its national tour visiting as part of Hennepin Theatre Trust's "Bank of America Broadway on Hennepin" season.

Matilda begins with the musical number "Miracle," in which children and their adoring parents proclaim what a miracle each of them is. None among them is merely "normal." Every last one is gifted, talented, advanced—and if not, blame is pointed elsewhere, as in the verse "He got a 'C' on his report, Clearly the teacher's fallen short." This all sounds familiar in the state where Garrison Keillor has told us "all the children are above average." But then we find out about Matilda Wormwood, unwished for by her parents, a competitive ballroom dancer and a crooked used car salesman, and considered a terrible freak because she prefers books to watching TV and points out to her dad the unfairness of his sales schemes. He calls her all kinds of awful names, such as "wart"—and refuses to acknowledge that she is a girl, calling Matilda son or boy. Not only are her parents ungrateful, demeaning and mean, but they are incredibly stupid. They can't wait to send Matilda to school and have her off their hands. Matilda gets back in her own way with little tricks—like bleaching her father's hair green—that they are too dimwitted to see through. She's not bad, but with so much against her, she explains that she can't help being a little bit "Naughty."

At school, Matilda makes a host of friends, some of whom have their own naughty streaks. Her teacher Miss Honey is kind, caring and wise. She quickly recognizes how brilliant Matilda is, entering first grade already reading—not just "The Cat in the Hat," but "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Jane Eyre"—and knows her times tables up to ... well, she doesn't know; she's never reached the end. However, the school principal is a horrid woman named Miss Trunchbull, a former Olympic hammer thrower, who is even meaner than Matilda's parents. "Children are Maggots" is her school motto. She considers Miss Honey's interest in helping her students a pathetic weakness. The two battle over Matilda's fate, with interludes of the other students' mischief, their harsh punishment by Miss Trunchbull, and Matilda's family's cluelessness. When Miss Honey visits them, hoping for their support in their cause, telling them how unusual it is for a child to start school already reading, Mrs. Wormwood barks back at her, well go ahead and stop her, as they tried fruitlessly to do.

The story unspools with secrets held by both Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull, the Wormwoods finding themselves pursued by hit men, and Matilda discovering that she has supernatural power. Some of the scenes show children being treated with great cruelty and children behaving quite badly, but all in a comedic manner that all but the youngest children would understand. And—spoiler alert—any child who becomes too upset by the troubles that befall Matilda can be reassured that there will be a happy ending.

Dahl's book, classic though it is, is a slim work. Matilda the Musical is beefed up on stage with a number of musical scenes that do not directly relate to the plot but embellish the horribleness of the school, the banality of Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, and the high spirits of the children. These include "Bruce," a hilarious scene about Bruce Bogtrotter, a boy who gets more than he asked for when he steals a piece of Trunchbull's chocolate cake; "Loud," in which Mrs. Wormwood defends her belief that "looks matter more than books" and, with her slinky dance partner Rudolpho demonstrates to Miss Honey how a woman gets herself noticed; and "When I Grow Up," with the students dreaming of their liberation from the bondage of childhood, joyfully staged, complete with swings that soar over the audience. The last musical number, "Revolting Children," gives the kids a chance to claim their power, with the word "revolting" used as a delicious play on words.

Dennis Kelly, who won a Tony Award for the musical's book, also invented a wonderful device in which Matilda and Mrs. Phelps, the local librarian, exchange roles. Matilda becomes a storyteller, skillfully spinning out of thin air a fanciful tale of a circus acrobat and escape artist in love, while Mrs. Phelps sits on a tiny seat in rapt awe, crying out when the story turns frightening, yet begging Matilda not to stop. The story told by Matilda and the story of Matilda end up coming together in a deft narrative stroke.

The cast is, top to bottom, terrific. Of course, most amazing to behold is Gabby Gutierrez who, on opening night, played Matilda. (The part is performed by three young actresses in rotation). This youngster acts, dances and sings with clarion power in a role that is clearly the show's lead. She is surrounded often by an ensemble of eight other young performers as her classmates, and all of them impress with their talent and show-biz savvy. Local youngster Soren Thayer Miller especially stands out as the cake-indulging Bruce.

Of the adults, Matt Harrington is spectacular as Mr. Wormwood, having a field day—shared fully with the audience—with the physical comedy and humor that are written into his character. Jennifer Bowles is a lovely and persuasive Miss Honey, with a beautiful voice. The part of the principal is written to be played by a man, and Dan Chameroy fits the bill to a T for Trunchbull. With a voice that brings to mind the late Bea Arthur and a stolid, albeit awkward, presence that projects authority, he mines the humor built into the menacing character. Darcy Stewart as ditzy and self-absorbed Mrs. Wormwood, and Keisha T. Fraser as Mrs. Phelps both bring their characters vividly to life. Stephen Diaz is impressively flexible as Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood's dance partner with Latin lover looks. The ensemble works well taking on various brief roles, and also in a few scenes become school children, donning the school uniform, bringing added volume to the songs and muscle to the dance. This could feel like too much of a gimmick, but Warchus' direction and Darling's choreography make it seamlessly natural.

The set, a Tony-winning design by Rob Howell, is fantastic. Every scene is framed by a cascade of objects that attest to its focus. The school has blocks of letters and punctuation signs, the library a Niagara of books, Miss Trunchbull's office has trophies and plaques attesting to her Olympian hammer throws. School desks, Trunchbull's massive desk, the Wormwoods' garish furnishings and Miss Honey's cozy home glide in and out with the ease of a page turning. Howell also designed the costumes, drawing inspiration from Quentin Blake's illustrations for Dahl's book, which is all for the good. Hugh Vanstone's Tony-winning lighting design is stunning, especially when illuminating scenes from the story Matilda tells. Simon Baker's marvelous sound design is an integrated element of the production as well.

So many musicals attempt to make a song and dance show out of a beloved book or movie. The majority of those efforts fail. Matilda is the exception, the dazzling, complete success that inspires other composers, lyricists and playwrights to try once more. But musicals as strongly conceived, artistically assembled, creatively mounted as Matilda the Musical—that are fun throughout and leave you with a feeling of warmth at the curtain call (and even that is an unexpected delight)—are rare indeed.

Matilda the Musical runs through April 2, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $145.00. For ticket information call 612-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit matildathemusical.com.

Book: Dennis Kelly; Music and Lyrics: Tim Minchin; Director: Matthew Warchus; Set and Costume Design: Rob Howell; Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone; Sound Design: Simon Baker; Choreography: Peter Darling; Illusion: Paul Kieve; Musical Director: Bill Congdon; Vocal Director: Andrew Wade; Orchestrations and Additional Music: Chris Nightingale; Resident Director: Sami Saltzman; Casting: Jim Carnahan C.S.A., Nora Brennan C.S.A., Jillian Cimini C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager: Eric Insko; Executive Producers: André Ptaszynski; and Denise Wood.

Cast: Jacob Anderson (Nigel), Gabby Beredo (Lavender), Jennifer Bowles (Miss Honey), Darren Burkett (Michael Wormwood), Dan Chameroy (Miss Trunchbull), Talia Cosentino (Hortensia), Eric Craig (Sergei), Gregory Diaz IV (Tommy), Stephen Diaz (Party Entertainer, Rudolpho), Keisha T. Fraser (Mrs. Phelps), Gabrielle Gutierrez (Matilda *), Matt Harrington (Mr. Wormwood), Jim Kaplan (Eric), Soren Thayer Miller (Bruce), Justin Packard (Doctor, The Escape Artist), Molly Richardson (Alice), Kim Sava (The Acrobat), Darcy Stewart (Mrs. Wormwood), Isabella Stuebing (Amanda). * The part of Matilda is played in rotation by Gabby Gutierrez, Jaime Maclean and Jenna Weir.

Ensemble: Darren Bucket, Jacqueline Burtney, Eric Craig, Stephen Diaz, Marissa Kennedy, Anthony MacPherson, Tyler McKenzie, Gray Monczka, Justin Packard and Kim Sava.


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