May 25, 2019

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A child shall lead them

Three theatre companies took big risks with Matilda and the audience gets the reward

Anna Anderson-Epp plays Matilda, whose love of books helps her overcome a difficult childhood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical. (Dylan Hewlett photos)

Anna Anderson-Epp plays Matilda, whose love of books helps her overcome a difficult childhood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical. (Dylan Hewlett photos)

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s annual musical offering feels like a bigger than usual affair, even compared to the 2018 lollapalooza Come From Away. It’s two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission) with a cast of 21 actors onstage and 12 musicians offstage. It’s so grand an undertaking, it required three companies — Royal MTC, Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre — to produce the thing.

Even so, it feels like a risky proposition. It’s dependent on a largely juvenile cast. And tonally, let’s face it, it’s an all-singing, all-dancing treatise on child abuse.

The source material is by Roald Dahl, whose children’s stories have a certain perversity built into them. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, was largely structured around the spectacle of naughty children being punished in baroque ways.

It’s the adults in Matilda that are in need of correction. The opening number, Miracle, satirizes parents’ overweening attitudes to their precious angels: “Ever since the day Doc chopped the umbilical cord/It’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me.” Such coddling only sets them up for a rude awakening once they enter the hostile universe of formal education.

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Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s annual musical offering feels like a bigger than usual affair, even compared to the 2018 lollapalooza Come From Away. It’s two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission) with a cast of 21 actors onstage and 12 musicians offstage. It’s so grand an undertaking, it required three companies — Royal MTC, Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre — to produce the thing.

Even so, it feels like a risky proposition. It’s dependent on a largely juvenile cast. And tonally, let’s face it, it’s an all-singing, all-dancing treatise on child abuse.

The source material is by Roald Dahl, whose children’s stories have a certain perversity built into them. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, was largely structured around the spectacle of naughty children being punished in baroque ways.

It’s the adults in Matilda that are in need of correction. The opening number, Miracle, satirizes parents’ overweening attitudes to their precious angels: "Ever since the day Doc chopped the umbilical cord/It’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me." Such coddling only sets them up for a rude awakening once they enter the hostile universe of formal education.

Matilda’s songs, by Tim Minchin, are a highlight.</p>

Matilda’s songs, by Tim Minchin, are a highlight.

Then comes Matilda Wormwood’s contrasting story of a brilliant little girl being raised by a pair of careless, self-centred idiots. Mrs. Wormwood (Lauren Bowler) is so wrapped up in her ballroom-dancing competitions, she doesn’t realize she is nine months pregnant. Mr. Wormwood (Ben Elliott) is a skeevy, TV-addicted used car salesman who refuses to even acknowledge his daughter’s gender, let alone her gifts, which include reading Dostoevsky at age five. (Could he be a grown version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s video-obsessed Mike Teavee?)

Fortunately, two adult women gravitate to Matilda’s corner. Librarian Mrs. Phelps (Sharon Crandall) is entranced by Matilda’s gift for storytelling, specifically the tragic-romantic tale the child weaves about an escape artist (Andrew MacDonald-Smith) and an acrobat (Becky Frohlinger). Matilda’s shy teacher Miss Honey (Alison MacDonald) attempts to get the obviously gifted child advanced to a more suitable grade, but is shot down by tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull (John Ullyat).

There is much to love here. The songs by Australian musical imp Tim Minchin are delightful, particularly Matilda’s ode to juvenile revenge, Naughty. The skewed set design by Cory Sincennes features a riot of bookshelves in homage to the bibliophile heroine. The pugnacious choreography by Kimberly Rampersad is particularly impressive in the way she orchestrates the movement of the seven children in the show.

The performances are very good, but especially enjoyable is Bowler and Elliott as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. John Ullyatt fully commits to the nightmarish Miss Trunchbull, a former competitive hammer thrower who is not averse to hurling little girls by their pigtails in the same manner. Of the non-Matilda kids, Schaefer Engbrecht and Kaelyn Yoon-MacRae get the chance to shine as the cake-devouring Bruce and the newt-spiking Lavender, respectively.

The role of Matilda is shared by two young actresses: Anna Anderson-Epp (who played the role in the Thursday evening première) and Lilla Solymos. The role presents a daunting challenge for a young actor, and Anderson-Epp took it on with power-posing authority.

Two hours and 45 minutes notwithstanding, the show goes by quickly. If it feels a bit of a challenge, it’s not the fault of this excellent production. It may be that’s just a long time to spend in Roald Dahl’s relentlesssly dyspeptic worldview.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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