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Theater Review: Northern Stage’s ‘Matilda’ Would Have Pleased Roald Dahl

  • Lisa Karlin and Matthew Patrick Quinn play Matilda's parents in Northern Stage's production of "Matilda the Musical." (Kata Sasvari photograph)

  • The cast of Northern Stage's production of "Matilda the Musical" features 30 children from around the Upper Valley. (Kata Sasvari photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2018

What would the incomparable Roald Dahl think if he were to haunt the plush rows of the Barrette Center for the Arts some wintry evening and watch one of his masterpieces put to music?

It’s a delicious thought to ponder as you take in the spectacle that is Matilda the Musical, and though the prospect is more than a bit intimidating, it isn’t so hard to envision the mischief-loving author joining in the fun of his classic tale re-imagined for the stage and set to a heart-swelling score. Such is the power of this Tony-winning show, and such is the talent on display in this Northern Stage production, playing now through Jan. 1.

To begin with, the particular genius of Roald Dahl fits the musical genre like a pair of Latin dance pants. Even if you’re not a fan of the musical revival now dominating screens and stages alike, you’ve got to acknowledge that Dahl’s lyrical, off-beat, larger-than-life stories seem tailor-made for musical theater. Matilda, with its metered villainy, its band of plucky schoolchildren, its ever crescendo-ing overthrow of oppression, is an especially inspired choice. And the musical treatment it receives in the hands of writer Dennis Kelly and musician and lyricist Tim Minchin is superb.

The show opens with a jaunty number called Miracle, which skewers the coddled progeny we tend to associate with the trophies-for-all generation but which Dahl had great fun taking down decades ago (who can forget Veruca Salt or Augustus Gloop?). Musically, the piece also calls to mind the Steampunk wonder of Dahl’s imagination, with its alla breve beat and shifting time signatures.

Next comes the bright anthem, Naughty, which articulates in horn-punctuated proclamations the willful inner workings of young Matilda’s own imagination. Other highlights include Mrs. Wormwood’s laugh-out-loud Loud, and its sweet counterpart in the second act, Quiet, as well as Mr. Wormwood’s hilarious paean to television and willful ignorance, All I Know.

Dahl saw his 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, made into a musical film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in 1971. Along with disliking Gene Wilder’s interpretation of the eccentric Mr. Wonka, he didn’t much care for the music.

Perhaps it’s impossible to fairly critique a 50-year-old composition, but it isn’t difficult to understand Dahl’s distaste for the flute-heavy, saccharine soundtrack with its lilting vocals and lagging tempo. Matilda’s score seems far better suited lyrically and musically to Dahl’s impish, unorthodox personality.

For example, Naughty pays clever tribute to the idea that even children can be masters of their own fates, with lines like “Nobody but me is gonna change my story.” Solos by the show’s multiple, richly drawn villains sparkle with the kinds of silly details Dahl adored, and Quiet is a multi-textured piece that celebrates the genius mind from the inside out. Is it presumptuous to imagine Dahl nodding along to lines like, “There’s no way of knowing if red means the same thing in your head as red means in my head when someone says red”?

No less impressive than the script and score are the performances delivered by Northern Stage, led by director Eric Love, music director Kevin White and choreographer Natalie Malotke. The schoolchildren, played by two rotating casts of 15 student actors, are the backbone of the show, their raucous performances reminiscent of Annie’s most memorable numbers.

Matilda’s parents, played by Lisa Karlin (whose credits include Wednesday in the Broadway version of The Addams Family) and Matthew Patrick Quinn (a regular on the regional and touring circuit), also bring to mind Annie villains with their tawdry huckstering and physical humor. Karlin’s facial expressions are a treat, and Quinn breaks the fourth wall after intermission in a way that suits his used car salesman persona. Mrs. Wormwood’s hip-swiveling dance instructor, played by Kyle Brand, and the couple’s thick-headed son, played by Ian Nolon and Trevor Siegel on alternating nights, round out the comic sideshow.

Making her Northern Stage debut on opening night last Saturday, 11-year-old Kylie Benoit played Matilda with understated poise and an impressive British accent, her singing voice never faltering through numerous challenging solos. (Bebhinn Knudsen, an eighth-grader at Hartford Middle School, plays the role on alternating nights.) Alexis Sims is an endearing Miss Honey, and Danielle Cohen delights as the over-eager librarian, Mrs. Phelps.

Let’s face it, though: It’s Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the school’s evil headmistress, whom audiences familiar with the novel or the 1996 movie are most eager to see, and Tom Ford (an alumnus of the New London Barn Playhouse and several other regional theater companies) does not disappoint. With ramrod posture, a range of grimacing expressions and a cartoon-villain physique, he evokes laughter before opening his mouth. His solos — husky, sibilant, quavering at the edges — prove he’s more than just a dreadful face. Casting a man (Bryce Ryness) as Miss Trunchbull in the 2013-17 Broadway show lent the character an extra oomph of absurdity, and Northern Stage continues that tradition to great effect.

The costumes, by Aaron Patrick DeClerk, and David L. Arsenault’s set design give the show a timeworn feel. Mr. Wormwood and the family living room are firmly stuck in the ’70s (think tacky green suits and wood-paneled ray-style TV set), and the school and its inhabitants have the slightly musty look of artifacts of a bygone era, with their wooden desks, blackboards and monogrammed blazers.

The set pieces slide in and out seamlessly, completing the immersive experience of the show, and the crew executes fantastical scenes such as Miss Trunchbull’s hurling of one of her students into the air with believable gimmickry.

The magic, together with the music and tightly paced plot, is almost too tight a fit, and some might wish Matilda could stage her revolt without need of the special powers that emerge late in the second act.

But a Roald Dahl story isn’t a Roald Dahl story without its limber leaps between the real and unreal, its blurred borders between the possible and the impossible. For all her singing about characters re-writing their stories, even Matilda can’t revolt against that.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.