Jennifer Roses’s production of “Matilda The Musical” is enormously funny but also dark and complex. Based on Roald Dahl’s novel and maintaining the author’s prickly wit and cracked vision, this unusual musical is full of surreal delights, catchy numbers and strong performances. As quirky and wild as this gets, I found the story to be engrossing and the message overall so much richer than simply providing uplift.
Matilda is a young girl with a horrible home life, as her parents (played by Frances Taua and Marsi Smith) constantly mock her intelligence. While Matilda finds a sympathetic teacher and friend in Miss Honey (played by Sara Jelley), she’s taunted constantly by a belittling authority figure, Miss Trunchbull (played by Dale Button). This is a world where adults are infuriated by the children around them, who are so much smarter than they are. In other words, this is an extremely timely musical.
The title role has been double cast- I saw Calilynn Salzer play the role and heard wonderful things about the work from Shaylah Sanchez. Salzer’s performance floored me- With her bright red hair, strong presence and vibrant performance, she doesn’t merely pull off the title role as much as nail it completely.
Taua is spectacular- his take on an intimidating moron reminded me of Oliver Reed. Smith, whose character resembles a deranged poodle, is also wonderful and, likewise, fully committed to embodying a person so vividly stupid, watching her and Taua as a team is both hilarious and maddening. John Williams is a riot as Rudolpho, turning his cameo role into a wild highlight. Jelley’s heartfelt work gives this a nice center. In the same way, I loved Beth Garrow’s scenes as Mrs. Phelps, whose scenes with Salzer have a genuine warmth and magic to them. In a show full of splashy numbers, the little moments have a quiet power and shine as brightly as the showier ones.
Then there’s Button, cleverly cast as Trunchbull and digging into the role with expected panache- as funny as Button is, he makes her truly mean and doesn’t shy away from shaping an unsettling villain. Another MVP is Kiegan Otterson, a delight in a trio of supporting turns (I especially loved his Cook). At times, there’s around 16 children on stage at once and all of them work well off one another. This is a massive ensemble that works well in unison to craft a unique tone and pull off some demanding song and dance sequences.
There’s some major talent on display here. In addition to the actors on stage, there’s also the skillful choreography of Camille Romero and the robust orchestration led by Robert E. Wills. The fantastic score by Tim Minchin comes roaring to life. I loved Salzer’s take on “Naughty, Jelley’s moving “This Little Girl” and the goofy second act opener, “All I Know (Telly).” Salzer is breathtaking in her rendition of “Quiet” and Button brings the house down with “The Smell of Rebellion.” I wasn’t familiar with this musical going in and found the songs staying with me days later.
Caro Walker’s towering sets perfectly recreate Dahl’s dark, quirky vision. In smaller but no less noteworthy way, the accents on hand are crisp and never a distraction. Considering the wide range of ages in this show, its impressive how seemingly everyone works hard to keep their dialects consistent.
Rose’s production is so big in size and ambition, I kept waiting for it to tip over completely. There’s even a subplot involving Russian gangsters- it pops up very late and, rather than bloat the story, it adds some extra laughs and a satisfying plot turn.
For a show that gets wacky and is child-friendly, there’s a richness to it that took me off guard. As in the best fairytales, the darkness present makes the uplift at the end feel hard won and especially deserving. “Matilda The Musical” is a tribute to that weird kid with a bright imagination, awful homelife and a spirit so big, no grown-up nitwit can suppress it.
Matilda The Musical is playing at the Historic Iao Theater until December 15th. Tickets are available at mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.