Reviewed by Katherine Karlson
The proliferation of Disney-themed musical plays that have become Broadway staples over the past decades may lull parents into thinking Matilda: The Musical is yet another in that diabetes-inducing parade. Instead, be prepared for a darkly funny and well-performed fable that will appeal to adults as much as children. Based on the story by Roald Dahl, with a book by Dennis Kelly, and Tim Minchin providing the music and lyrics, Matilda’s talented and energetic cast provides the theatrical tonic to banish the mid-winter blahs.
The story is about the bookish and brilliant Matilda Wormwood, born to a family of “telly”-obsessed louts and losers. Ignored (“I’m a girl” is her weary reply to a sleazeball father who keeps calling her by a male pronoun) and ridiculed for her love of reading, Matilda is banished to a school that makes Dotheboys Hall look progressive — it’s no surprise she names Nicholas Nickleby as one of her favorite books, along with Crime and Punishment (in the original Russian, thank you very much). The sinister and sadistic headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, makes every child’s life a living hell, but Matilda finds comfort and support in Miss Honey, an aptly named teacher with demons of her own to banish. In between Scheherazade-like episodes wherein Matilda recounts a story to the friendly librarian, Mrs. Phelps, the young heroine overcomes her own feelings of inadequacy. She unites her fellow students in rebellion, and Matilda eventually brings her not inconsiderable mental powers, which include telekinesis, to bear in the ousting of the odious Trunchbull and restoration of the ancestral house to Miss Honey, who becomes her guardian.
Megan Howell, who plays Matilda for S.R.O. Productions III, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, especially garbed in her drab school uniform and clutching the ever-present bundle of books. Howell has an excellent stage presence, which conveys the character’s inner strength and intelligence. She nails Matilda’s introductory theme song, “Naughty,” as she prepares the first of many acts of revenge on those adults who abuse and malign her. Howell completes the character’s nuanced journey to self-realization in the gentle “Quiet.”
The ensemble of young actors is beyond competent; the entire group brings a lively energy and ability to the numerous song and dance productions. Their acting is first rate and believable, even as their characters engage in the silliest of pranks and pratfalls such as the Herculean task of eating an entire chocolate cake (which Nicholas Blake as Bruce does to foil Miss Trunchbull). They also address the poignant, helpless feeling all children feel in the song “When I Grow Up,” which reminds us that even some adults still need to grow up.
The adult actors, especially those in the unsympathetic roles, have way too much fun, and it shows, much to the audience’s delight. Matilda’s self-absorbed, dim-witted and shallow parents, played by Marjorie Loughran and Jeff Tagliaferro, are as deliciously comic as they are clueless. As Miss Trunchbull, Mickey Woyshner is the most maniac and evil stage hunchback since Richard III. The natural exuberance and curiosity of children are his character’s bete noire. The non-stop stream of invective against all the children in her dismal school could be tedious were it not for Woyshner’s gift of over-the-top physical humor, which includes the failure to complete even the most rudimentary head-over-heels tumble on a floor mat.
The two most sympathetic and kind adults in the room, Lynette Daniels as Mrs. Phelps and Sarah Wallikas as Miss Honey, are genuine in their affection and concern for the beleaguered Matilda. Wallikas does an especially good job of showing vulnerability as the frightened adult to Matilda’s courageous child; they are two sides of the same coin. As the central characters in Matilda’s story of the Escapologist and his lovely Acrobat wife, Joe Hoffman and K. Morgan Prikazsky are fully realized despite their not-so-fictional existence. Matilda’s respectful telling of their tragic tale reflects her own longing for parents who think their child is a true “miracle.”
Even minor characters, which include Eric Bill as Sergei, the Russian Mafioso who comes to settle accounts with Matilda’s lowlife father, contribute just enough farce to make us see the humanity within said character.
Mrs. Phelps keeps asking Matilda each time she breaks off her story, “Isn’t there a happy ending?” This musical is one of those rarities that lets us answer this question through a well-told tale, seasoned with memorable tunes delivered by a truly gifted ensemble.
IF YOU GO: S.R. O. Productions III’s Matilda: The Musical opened last night (Friday, Jan. 24) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 46-48 Willow St., Johnson City. Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. today (Jan. 25), Jan. 31 and Feb.1 and at 2 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 26) and Feb. 2. Reserved seating at $25 (students/age 60+, $23) can be purchased obtained at sroproductionsonline.com or at 800-838-3006. For more information, visit the website or call 722-2821.