“Matilda” originated as a 1988 children’s novel by English author Roald Dahl. It was adapted into a popular motion picture in 1996 and became a hit musical in London in 2010, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly. “Matilda”: retained its popularity when the show was restaged on Broadway in 2012. Now Chicagoland audiences can check out the international hit in a splendid production at the Drury Lane Theatre.
The Matilda of the title is a 5-year old girl who must deal with nasty parents at home and a sadistic monster of a headmistress in school. The show weaves in and out of reality as little Matilda tries to survive by relying on her precocious intelligence, intellectual curiosity, resilient spirit, and super powers. Matilda takes refuge in reading, not just children’s books but Thomas Hardy and Leo Tolstoy. Her feckless mother and father scorn her reading, demanding she devote herself to watching television like any normal child.Photo-by-Brett-Beiner
Matilda takes refuge in her school library and the sympathy of librarian Mrs. Phelps and teacher Miss Honey. Often the girl breaks into songs that urge kids to stand fast against the slings and arrows of an oppressive childhood, suck it up, and fight back. Good advice in the abstract but maybe not so do-able in real life, especially when battling the power of unfeeling parents and the sadistic child-hating Agatha Trunchbull, the villainous headmistress at Matilda’s school. Dahl is a master at creating unflattering and obnoxious characters (consider the unpleasant people, young and old, in his “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). But Miss Trunchbull is in a class by herself as a monster.
Most of the characters in “Matilda” are children, but the show, for all its cleverness and humor, can get scary, especially whenever the sinister Miss Trunchbull is on stage. But spectators of any generation should delight in little Matilda’s pluck and the production’s imaginative visual effects. The young characters swing from ropes, dash about the stage in controlled frenzy, run in and out of the audience, and generally offer the viewer a consistently animated viewing experience.
I generally get nervous watching youngsters performing on the live stage. I keep waiting for them to freeze up or inaudibly or unintelligibly recite their lines. But I have never seen a more talented group of young actors on a Chicagoland stage, and they are authentically young, not 20-something thespians trying to impersonate preteens.
The show’s success must start with the girl who plays Matilda (the demands of the role require multiple girls who rotate in the role). Drury Lane has cast Chicago sixth grader Audrey Edwards as the lass and she gives a jaw-dropping performance. Audrey is on stage most of the show, and her role requires the mastery of huge passages of dialogue plus tricky song lyrics to be belted out full tilt. She also has to act convincingly and with a British accent. “Matilda” doesn’t try to minimize the character’s stage time out of deference to age and lack of experience, like the musical “Oliver.” The production requires a star performance and a star performance Edwards delivers at Drury Lane (Natalie Gallo, a 5th grader from Warrenville, alternates in the role).Photo-by-Brett-Beiner
Edwards is complimented by the chorus of top notch young singer-dancer-actors, uniformly exhibiting confidence, versatility, stamina, and professionalism. Drury Lane has brought in Mitch Sebastian from England to direct and choreograph the show and he obviously knows how to work with children. His choreography is complex and demands precision and athleticism along with the expected dancing skills and his ensemble provides winning performances throughout the 2 ½ hour presentation. They all deserve a shout out and I’ll name Patrick Scott McDermott (Nigel) and Anna Fox (Lavender) to represent their peers.
The adult portion of the ensemble is led by Sean Fortunato as Miss Turnbull (the role calls for a male performer in drag). Fortunato is one of Chicagoland theater’s most reliable actors and he rises to the challenge of the grotesque Miss Trunchbull with suitable smirking venom, though the role is so extravagantly hateful that it often verges on a cartoon. But late in the show the woman’s pathological behavior toward the show’s children may be a little intense for the very young in the audience.
Matilda’s mother and father are both distasteful characters but in the performances by Jackson Evans and Stephanie Gibson they come across more as comic than menacing. Still, Miss Trunchbull supplies enough horror for the evening. There is also an onstage scene of sexual dalliance involving the mother that may be jarring to youngsters, or maybe not. The two nice adults in the story are affectionately played by Eben K. Logan (Miss Honey) and Linda Bright Clay (Mrs. Phelps).
The physical requirements of the production are well met by Drury Lane’s technology as creatively used by Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s fluidly used turntable set designs. Theresa Ham designed the often circus-like costumes. Driscoll Otto contributed the dramatic lighting and projections, Ray Nardelli’s the sound design, and Bob Koch the illusions. The Drury Lane orchestra conducted by Christopher Sargent, with Roberta Duchak as musical director, handles the multicolored score with its usual proficiency.
“Matilda” might be the most impressive production I’ve ever seen at Drury Lane because of its spot-on contributions from such a large group of child performers. The spectator can focus on the show’s cautionary tale about the challenges of growing up or just admire the intricate and imaginative production. Either way “Matilda” works beautifully.
The show gets a rating of
“Matilda the Musical” runs through June 23 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $55 to $70. Call 630 530 0111 or visit DruryLaneTheatre.com.
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