By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Wicked, I tell you.
Wicked fun, that is, the smart, joyful musical that’s currently promoting anti-authoritarian resistance, empowerment, and self-determination — for children! — from the Citadel’s Shoctor stage.
Based on Roald Dahl’s delightfully dark 1988 kids’ novel, Matilda follows the fortunes of a brilliant little girl, neglected and oppressed by fantastically dreadful parents, who finds her defence and refuge in … books, not TV. What a crushing disappointment to mom and dad (not to mention the culture at large).
When the other kids are apostrophizing their fawning parents in an early number (“my mummy says I’m a miracle”), Matilda, unperturbed, is singing “my mummy says I’m a lousy little worm/ my daddy says I’m a bore….”
Yes, Matilda Wormwood, bright and brave and bookish, is a born subversive, I’m afraid. As you find out in the musical ingeniously fashioned as stories within stories by playwright Dennis Kelly and the Australian composer/lyricist Tim Minchin, she’s a natural rally-er of forces against injustice, unfair punishments, tyranny, illiteracy, and general stupidity. At school, Crunchem Hall, where the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull presides with an iron, er, hammer (she’s a British champion hammer thrower of yore), things are just as bad, maybe worse.
The musical, which had its origins at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 (before West End and Broadway incarnations), comes at us in a lavish, gothically high-style Daryl Cloran production courtesy of the combined forces of the Citadel, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. And, as I can attest, it’s that rarest of showbiz commodities: clever and bracing for the ruling class (i.e. grownups who were once kids) as well as their offspring, who know full well what it’s like to be up against it in a crazy, mean-spirited world.
If ever there was an anthem to the prodigious possibilities built into children, it’s the musical itself. Matilda is a veritable singing/dancing testimonial. For the nearly three hours of Cloran’s production, you’ll see child performers right alongside their taller, older cast-mates, not indulged for cuteness, but bona fide working members of the excellent ensemble.
Locally recruited for the Edmonton run of a production that ran first in Winnipeg with Winnipeg kids, they sing confidently; they execute the intricacies of Kimberley Rampersad’s bold, crisply jagged, fist-first choreography with dazzling conviction. And under Cloran’s direction they know that being funny onstage is a matter of seriousness and stakes.
At the centre, Dostoyevski and Dickens defiantly in hand, is Matilda, played by Edmonton’s Lilla Solymos (who alternates with Winnipegger Anna Anderson-Epp). And she’s wonderful in her grave solemnity, her plucky refusal to ingratiate or indulge pathos (she prefers revenge), and her general air of determination — not to mention her singing voice.
Her parents are a repository of brassy lunacy and hysterical self-centredness. Sleazy Mr. Wormwood, a used-car salesman whose attempts to sell old beaters to the Russian mafia (rarely a good idea), is played to cartoon comic excess by spaghetti-legged Ben Elliott. Lauren Bowler is very funny too as Mrs. Wormwood, obsessed with ballroom dance, her partner Rudolpho (Julio Fuentes) and blonde highlights, in interchangeable order.
As Matilda’s older brother Michael, Corben Kushneryk takes sullen listlessness to a level of virtuosity rarely seen in a sentient being. I laughed every time I saw him onstage.
The epicentre of tyranny is the formidably scary Miss Trunchbull. Her reign of terror — introduced before we ever meet her in a set-up song by the students — is set forth in a showstopping performance of comic villainy from John Ullyatt. His delivery, which sharpens its edges on an English accent designed to amputate limbs, veers between a sinister faux silkiness (accompanied by a faux-pitying smirk), and bosom-levitating rage. Given the epic nature of that bosom, the world trembles.
Miss Trunchbull simmers ominously, like a volcano just before red-hot lava delivery, and can sniff out “the odour of rebellion, the whiff of insurgence, the stench of intent” before it even forms. Being sent to the principal’s office, under the circumstances, has something in common with getting sent to the guillotine in 1789.
The sight of Ullyatt’s Miss Trunchbull in full gym garb vaulting over the pommel horse in that most dreaded of all punishments (well, second-most), phys-ed, is unforgettable. Equally, the sight of Miss Trunchbull winding up to fling a pupil by the pigtails, like a hammer, is something you’ll have for life. Ullyatt is, in all senses of the word, riotous.
With foes like that, a kid needs friends. Matilda has two: the excitable librarian(Sharon Crandall) who’s addicted to her stories, and her teacher Miss Honey (sweet-voiced Alison MacDonald), torn between fear and conscience. The moment when Matilda by example mobilizes her quavering classmates into out-and-out rebellion is savoury indeed.
After all, as the insurrectionist Matilda has pointed out, in one of Minchin’s clever, witty, multi-syllabic songs, Jack and Jill, whose tumble is widely regarded as inevitable, should really have sucked it up and re-written their narrative. “Nobody’s gonna change my story but me….” In fact, as an imaginative child, she is tuned to stories — and storytelling, and the criss-crossing of narratives and life. Which explains why there’s an acrobat team in the show, one of the many delights of Matilda.
A cavil: Speaking of the songs, Minchin’s incisively funny lyrics sometimes get lost in a bright, forward sound mix (Brad Danyluk) that’s otherwise fine. Perhaps it’s inevitable given the timbre of kid voices, but it’s still a loss.
The West End and Broadway productions were framed by a teetering proscenium of books that looked ready to fall. Cloran sets his large cast in motion on an amusing design by Cory Sincennes that’s dominated by a wall of stylized bendy bookcases; they’re full of gray untitled volumes punctuated by intermittently by glowing TV screens, and have a wonky outsized frame that shines in the dark. Sincennes’ costumes, in flamboyant acid hues, are fun to look at. The show is luridly lit, in cartoon fashion, by Gerald King.
There’s a dark sense of humour at work in Matilda, which approaches loneliness and rejection in an appealingly oblique way. Matilda earns its sentiment (and, yes, your eyes will water, sometimes while you’re laughing!) and its heartbreak: it takes its cue from a heroine who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. She keeps it tucked away, under the armour that activists wear, and saves it for her stories.
Wicked, as I say. Be a little naughty: step up to the revolution and get a ticket. Nobody’s gonna change your story but you.
Matilda the Musical
Theatre: Citadel, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Arts Club Theatre
Written by: Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, from the Roald Dahl novel
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Lilla Solymos, Anna Anderson-Epp, Ben Elliott, Lauren Bowler, Alison MacDonald, John Ullyatt, Alison MacDonald
Running: through March 17
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com