As most any child can attest, Roald Dahl was a master storyteller. He dares children to imagine the darkest of worlds, populated by what a child could only see as the worst that humanity had to offer. But he made these worlds palatable by populating them with the smartest and brightest of children. Whether it was Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James from James and the Giant Peach, or Matilda from the story of the same name, these were remarkable children that counteracted the darkness of these worlds by serving as a beacon for children to follow into the darkness.
His stories were complex and profound. They were epics for the young. And now one of his most endearing characters, Matilda, has made her way to the stage, currently performing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
While not one of his most famous stories, Matilda bears all of the hallmarks of the best of his work. Matilda herself is a genius, forced to live in misery with a family that resents her. Her mother sees her as an obstacle in the way of her dance ambitions, and her father is disgusted by the fact that she wasn’t a son. Tortured throughout her childhood, she finds escape through books, eventually creating her own stories as a way of escaping from her own story. Finding herself at Crunchem Hall Primary School, the dichotomy of light and dark are presented once again through the seemingly perfect teacher, Miss Honey, and the horrible excuse of a headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (brilliantly played by Dan Chameroy). One of the great pleasures of this production is the rivalry between Miss Trunchbull and all of the students.
I would have always imagined that a story such as this could never be pulled off on the stage. There are just too many fantastical elements for it too work. Yet somehow, they have pulled it off in spectacular fashion. This is in no small part to the phenomenal performances across the board. With a cast composed primarily of children, I was floored at the fierce dedication they all brought to their roles. The role of Matilda herself would appear to be particularly challenging, with almost non-stop verbal ruminations and wordplay. As the character is supposed to be a genius, the young child playing the role (there are 3 total actresses playing the role throughout the show’s run) has a lot of weight to carry on her shoulders, and it is pulled off in amazing fashion. Compounding the difficulty, Matilda is a musical, and a fantastic one at that.
The songs in this production are far more memorable than I was expecting, and almost all filled with extremely clever wordplay. The dance choreography is extremely creative, all in service of the story and conveying a great deal simply through motion. I must also commend the entire technical crew for keeping up with the incredibly fast paced demands a show such as this must require. The special effects are extremely impressive, and while they never overshadow the story they are servicing, they are always a joy to behold.
Pretty much everything about this production works, from the whimsical set design to the on-the-nose costuming. If I have one small complaint, it’s that some of the dialogue in the music can be hard to understand. The cast utilizes over-the-top British accents, and many of the musical numbers feature multiple people singing at once, often overlapping each other with various pieces of dialogue. There were times where I just found myself enjoying the theatrics of the experience, but not entirely understanding what was being said.
However, that’s a small complaint compared to the numerous joys that this show has to offer. It really is like seeing Dahl’s story come to life before your eyes, and while the dark undertones are never shied away from, I would definitely recommend this as a production for the entire family. Matilda is being performed now through January 29.