A young hero in her own story who redeems the lives of others around her, the title character in the musical adaptation by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin of Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda uses her precocious intelligence, sense of justice, compassion, tendency to trickery, and a bit of ESP to defeat the ugly, corrupt, and tyrannical adults oppressing her and her schoolmates.
In Olney Theatre Center’s production of Matilda, Emiko Dunn brings unflagging energy, a vibrant sense of Matilda’s indefatigable spirit, and a strong singing voice (used to great advantage in “Quiet,” as she begins to realize her special powers).
Like any hero, she has obstacles to overcome on her journey. These begin with her parents. Mr. Wormwood (Christopher Michael Richardson) is a sleazy operator from whom probably even Richard Nixon wouldn’t buy a used car. The blowsy Mrs. Wormwood (Tracy Lynn Olivera) is obsessed with dance contests and her tall, self-obsessed dance partner, Rodolpho (the amazingly supple Andre Hinds). Neither have any use for a child, let alone one who prefers books to “the telly” (to which Richardson leads an anthem beginning act two).
But they are nothing compared to the school principal, Miss Trunchbull (Tom Story, in what is traditionally a drag role), beside whom Annie’s Miss Hannigan is a pussycat. A hammer-throwing fascist madwoman of an administrator, she is never so creative as when conjuring new ways to torment her charges. Her motto: “Children are maggots.” Story scores with “The Smell of Rebellion,” much of which is a patter song of the sort an authoritarian incarnation of W.S. Gilbert might have conceived.
Fortunately, not all the adults are evil. The kindly librarian Ms. Phelps (Rayanne Gonzales) encourages Matilda to tell her stories. Most important, Miss Honey (Felicia Curry), a teacher herself oppressed by Miss Trunchbull, nurtures and supports Matilda and the other children. Curry displays her warm, full voice in the ballads “Pathetic” and “My House.”
Matilda tells what seems, but later turns out not quite to be, a fanciful story involving a tragic relationship between an escape artist (Conner James Reilly) and an acrobat (Quynh-My Luu). Both performers sing effectively, James particularly as he joins Dunn in “I’m Here.”
Matilda is a strong, lively ensemble show, and Byron Easley’s choreography leads the mostly young group in well-designed and energetic movement numbers, culminating with “Revolting Children” (“We are revolting children / living in revolting times / We sing revolting songs / using revolting rhymes”). Among the children, the chocolate-inhaling Bruce (Patrick Ford) and Matilda’s friend Lavender (Camiel Warren-Taylor) stood out.
The set, designed by Milagros Ponce de Leon, features a triple proscenium of bookshelves in high-key colors, with sliding panels bearing electronic signs for the library and school behind the center of the playing space. Nancy Shertler and Clint Allen designed a suite of lighting and projection effects reminiscent, on a somewhat less overwhelming scale, of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The cumulative effect of these aspects of the production emphasizes the critical importance of words and books to the ability of Matilda to tell her own story, notwithstanding the malign influence of her parents and Miss Trunchbull. Dahl’s novel appeared in 1988, and perhaps in keeping with that period, or simply good judgment on the part of director Peter Flynn (who keeps the production moving forward admirably), the children are not equipped with cell phones.
Pei Lee’s costumes are a delight. Mr. Wormwood wears a horridly tacky checkered outfit, while his wife wears something out of a surrealistic episode of Dancing with the Stars. The acrobat and escape artist are in bright circus attire. Matilda and the other children are mostly in gray school uniforms. Miss Trunchbull wears what any gym teacher from hell might think of as authoritative. The highlight of Roc Lee’s sound design is a heroic belch after Bruce finishes eating a chocolate cake. However, at times, on top of Dunn’s relatively high-pitched speaking voice and often quick delivery, the degree of amplification creates some issues with the audience’s ability to understand her words.
What, more than anything else, made Matilda a hit in London and on Broadway is that it tells a child’s story without sentimentality, giving its protagonist agency amidst the dark forces in her world. Olney Theatre Center’s production succeeds for the same reasons, providing a thoroughly satisfying experience for the audience.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, including one intermission.