You don’t have to be a kid to recognize the world isn’t fair, adults often lie to get what they want, and authority figures can be both comedic and terrifying, even. if they like to hurt you. Writer Roald Dahl has exploited this vein of concern in his children’s books “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach”; in “Matilda”, its protagonist is the required courageous girl who not only fights against injustice, but is determined to make things right.
“Matilda the Musical” is the daring and courageous musical that Syracuse Stage is putting on as this year’s holiday show in collaboration with SU Drama, and they too are putting things right after 18 months of an unfair world. With a book by British screenwriter Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australian musical comedian Tim Minchin, “Matilda the Musical” debuted in London’s West End in November 2011. After transferring to Broadway in April 2013 , it won five Tonys, including Best Book in a Musical. .
Directed by Donna Drake, who has directed three previous stage holiday shows (“The Wizard of Oz”, “Elf the Musical” and “Beauty and the Beast”), this production is not the big, bursting spectacle of the years past, and rightly so. Like Mathilde, we have been worn out by lies and by leaders as clownish as they are dangerous. We are much less likely to be carried away by pure fantasy now that we are older, wiser, masked, and vaxxed. But what “Matilda” lacks in pure escape he makes up for with thoughtful seriousness. His message is simple: the story of who we are can always be changed if we stand up for what we know to be right.
For those who haven’t read the book or seen the 1996 film starring Mara Wilson and Danny DeVito, the story is simple: the bright and imaginative Matilda was born to greedy, grabbing Mr. Wormwood a shady used car dealership. , and Mrs. Wormwood a self-absorbing air head. To escape the depreciation of her family, Mathilde learns to read and delves into books. When her kindergarten teacher, Miss Honey, discovers her genius, Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the evil principal of Matilda’s school, who reigns with an iron fist and threatens any student who crosses her with a dark and dastardly cupboard of punishment, the Chokey.
The title role is shared by two performers: Annabel Cole, a 7th grader from Brooklyn, and SU drama student Emerson Glick, a major junior in musical theater. Two professors from the League’s Drama Department fill key roles: Practice Professor David Lowenstein as Trunchbull and Assistant Music Theater Professor Kathleen Wrinn as Miss Honey. Luke Darnell and Kim Sava play Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, and Pascal Pastrana is Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood’s salsa partner and lover. The cast of 30 includes professional equity actors from across the country, drama students from the League, and young local actors.
On opening night, Cole played Matilda with liveliness and verve, earning a solid encore acclaim for her loud vocals and alluring acting. Playing alongside her as kindergarteners, SU’s drama students – some nearly twice her age – effectively succeed their inner child, most notably Haley Wright as Lavender and Shaun Collins as by Nigel. The star of “Little Kid” is Brian Hebert, a 7th grade student from Fayetteville-Manlius, a Ron Weasley lookalike with the charm and presence of Rupert Grint in the first Harry Potter film; his cake-eating scene is the icing on the show. Also of note: Morgan Lewis in sophomore SU as Mrs. Phelps, a librarian who encourages Matilda’s gifts as a reader and storyteller.
The musical numbers, while slow to start, speed up midway through Act I, which is important: for those who want to compare the musical with the 1996 film (I’ll get to that later), the vocals and dancing are what sets these artists apart from their more famous on-screen counterparts. Ms. Wormwood and Rudolpho pack the stage as they educate shy Miss Honey on the merits of glow in the “Loud.” Mr Wormwood opens Act II with a lecture warning young audience members not to try out things they see on stage at home, namely reading, which will ruin their lives; he swivels around in the “All I Know” frolic, extolling the virtues of television while his son sits, stunned by the flickering light of a screen. (While he looks nothing like Billy Fuccillo, anyone who has seen the late car dealer’s hundreds of TV commercials over the years will recognize that same selling sense and charm.)
Part of the success of “Matilda the Musical” is the familiarity of the material: we’ve seen moments like this before. Darnell and Sava as Wormwoods feel like Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis from “Annie”; the students singing “When I Grow Up” are a G rated version of “Totally F * cked” from “Spring Awakening”; Miss Honey’s “My House” is Audrey from “Little Shop of Horrors” making her dreams of “Somewhere That’s Green” come true: and “Loud” is Glinda from “Wicked” revisiting the song “Popular”, but now as bored bride woman having an affair.
If you grew up watching the 1996 film, don’t have kids, but want to remember late with “Matilda the Musical,” this production probably won’t satisfy that nostalgic itch. This is not a retreading of the film, but an original show which, while drawing inspiration from the same source material, is self-sufficient. Unlike the film, it is not Americanized: all the actors in the production speak with British accents.
The musical director of the show, Brian Cimmet, conducts a fluid and energetic eight-member orchestra. Czerton Lim’s stage design brilliantly emphasizes the book-to-stage concept with massive backs of children’s classics framing the stage and giant typography used as a backdrop for the action; by keeping the ensemble’s colors neutral, the staging allows Ryan J. Moller’s costume designs to burst and Jason Kyle Estrada’s wig designs to shine under Thomas C. Hase’s lighting. Brian McMullen’s screenings are well rendered, especially the bank of videos jerky replaying Trunchbull’s one-time glory as a hammer-throw champion. Jacqueline R. Herter’s sound design adds to the creepy appearances of Trunchbull with subtle hints of Evil Walking.
Roald Dahl’s skill as a children’s author is evident in his ability to push the boundaries of age-appropriate goosebumps, rudeness, and horror. While it works in film – it’s recorded media and automatically creates distance – a live stage performance can be intense. Principal Trunchbull’s statement on her school motto, “Children are maggots!” Is indicative of the twisted sensibility of this particular story. Judge accordingly and know that “Matilda the Musical” depicts children thrown into the air and fallen from the sky, having their earlobes pulled until they visually extend across the stage, and being forced to overeating as a punishment. Several moments can be too intense for young spectators. The musical is recommended for ages six and up, but if your child is particularly imaginative or sensitive to horror, even implied, certain scenes may cause anxiety.
But if you’re an adult who’s never liked the endless traditional musical and appreciate a more Tim Burton approach to celebrating the holidays, the darkness on the edge of “Matilda the Musical” will warm your edgy little heart.
When purchasing tickets, please consider the attendance requirements of Syracuse Stage (see below) and full Covid-19 safety instructions.
What: “Matilda the Musical” by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin
Or: Scene from Syracuse, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
When seen: Opening on November 26
Length: 2 hours 15 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission
Family guide: Suitable for ages six and up
Crosses: January 2
Conditions of presence: Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test, and masks worn at all times