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The Royal Shakespeare Company has brought their national tour of Roald Dahl's dark comedy, Matilda, to the NC Theatre stage at Memorial Auditorium and, judging from the turnout opening night, just about every child age ten or under in Raleigh knows it. Dahl's outre sense of what goes on in the mind of a child is exquisitely evident in this stage adaptation by Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics). But staging a Dahl creation, especially a musical adaptation, is a massive undertaking, and it requires a cast of 31 highly energetic and enthusiastic performers to pull it off. Happily, pull it off they did, and in spectacular fashion, much to the delight of the equally enthusiastic audience.
Matilda Wormwood, played opening night by Gabrielle (Gabby) Gutierrez, is Dahl's hapless heroine, and she is only the age of five; nonetheless, she is amazingly well put together, especially considering she is ensconced in England's most dysfunctional family. Her father (Matt Harrington) is a hopeless twit who believes Matilda is a boy, if only because that's what he wanted when she was born, and he's too bloody stubborn to admit defeat. Her mother (Darcy Stewart) was overheard to declare upon Matilda's birth, "This is the worst day of my life!" I tell ya, against such odds, it is amazing that the poor child has made it this far, considering. Nonetheless, Matilda is the calm in the storm that is her disastrous home life. She quietly reminds her Dad every time he calls her "Boy," that "I'm a girl!" and she sits peacefully in the den of their home, reading Charles Dickens, while her older brother, Michael (Darren Burkett), surfs the cable channels, and her father tries endlessly to unload a stableful of old relic cars on an unsuspecting public. Daddy is thrilled at the notion that Matilda is of the age to begin school, and that, because they have enrolled her in the locally well-known grade school of Miss Agnes Trunchbull (played wickedly by Mr. Dan Chameroy), they will be rid of her. Miss Trunchbull is of the notion that, in order to teach a child, it is first necessary that you "break" said child. And based upon the young rapscallions in her charge, that's probably a forgivable opinion. Matilda's young school chums are all brats, with a massive dose of rebellion within each of them. (I imagine this is particularly fun to do for this amazingly athletic and enthusiastic team of young actors!) Matilda's first day of school is predictably grim, but she finds a glimmer of hope in the person of her teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles), who recognizes Matilda's innate genius and phenomenal acumen.
Before Matilda goes to school this particular morning, she goes by the local library, where she is greeted by her old friend, the librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser). Mrs. Phelps adores Matilda, not only because she is a voracious reader, but especially because Matilda tells her stories. Mrs. Phelps loves Matilda's stories. But today, Matilda cannot finish the story she is spinning for Mrs. Phelps. As it turns out, she must finish her first day of school before she will know how her story develops.
Matilda's own story is how she meets, defies, and ultimately defeats the evil Miss Trunchbull. How she does it, and the incredible power of the mind she uses to defeat her nemesis, is the meat of Act II. But what she learns along the way is that the (terribly dark) story she has been spinning for Mrs. Phelps actually has real-life connections.
Despite the very real and accessible plight of Matilda, and the equally nasty but nonetheless fun antics of her school chums, I had a bit of trouble with Act I of Matilda. For some inexplicable reason I had tremendous trouble understanding what these young singers were singing about. And this was a major distraction, because the singing of these young whippersnappers is what details the show and moves the story along. It took the better part of Act I to get this very real problem sorted out, but by the time the curtain came down for intermission, the fog had lifted and the diction of these young singers had finally cleared. But even with this difficulty, I was absolutely floored by the tremendous abilities of this young contingent of actor/singer/dancers. These kids – and if there was a single one of them over ten years old, you could never have proved it by me – must have phenomenal skills in this trio of performance.
The exceptionally difficult choreography, which is evident from the very first note of music, was to me mind-numbing, and yet these young dancers nailed it, in every single tune. These numbers, almost all of which involved eight kids, were incredibly complex; the sheer necessity of stamina and control needed to carry them out staggered my imagination. But this contingent was flawless; their execution and enthusiasm was evident and it grabbed us all. I sat amazed at the abilities of these young athletes, for that is what they are. I would go to see this show a second or even third time, just to watch the clockwork precision of these young dancers. It was especially evident in Act II's "The Smell of Rebellion," in which Miss Trunchbull introduces her students to "PhysEd." The individual talents of each of these kids was absolutely amazing as they executed some of the most difficult choreography I have ever seen, and made it fun to watch. The abilities of this octet of young dancers was on a caliber with a crack team of military drill riflemen; their execution must be, and was, that grade of perfection.
Matilda the Musical is a wickedly funny show, with a dark humor that we know is all in fun and a crack team of precision-level dancers that will take your breath away. This music is infectious and these children are amazing; you will literally marvel at their abilities. Roald Dahl's story makes this show a good one; but it is these kids that make this show a great one! The boys are Bruce (Soren Miller), Nigel (Jacob Anderson), Eric (Abigail Nicholson!), and Tommy (Gregory Diaz IV); the girls are Lavender (Gabby Beredo), Amanda (Isabella Stuebing), Alice (Molly Richardson), and Hortensia (Talia Consentine).
Go see this show and keep your eye on these kids; there is no doubt at all that they will amaze and astound you. Matilda the Musical continues through Sunday, May 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.