Playhouse Fills The Park With Revolting Children in Winning “Matilda”

Imagine there’s a small group of extraordinarily talented children and they’ve been promised a showcase to their talents over a year and a half ago but a worldwide cataclysm interrupts their plans and they must remain inside, rehearse over Zoom for a year while grown-ups across the world denied, debated and dithered until finally, they could scream out “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it, If you always take it on the chin and wear it, Nothing will change!”

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Photo by Willie Short

Sounds like it could be a Roald Dahl story, doesn’t it? I was there Tuesday night for the children’s re-emergence on the Park Playhouse Stage where they are playing “Matilda,” adapted from a Dahl book by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. “Matilda” is a sweet, quiet, unassuming good girl who just wants to read her books but she’s born into a family of freaks. Her mother is obsessed with her dance lessons with Rodolfo and tells Matilda she’s an argument for population control. Her father is a used-car salesman who misgenders her and tells her she would learn more from the telly, even has a song extolling it. She gets sent away to a dreadful school for her book reading and begins to grow telekinetic powers that will be useful in her salvation.

Matilda is played by two actors on alternating nights and I saw Molly Engelhardt who could not have been more persuasive or determined in her resolute goodness as Matilda. Her mother was hysterically played by Claire Flynn as the most desperate housewife you have ever come across. Unrecognizable from SLOC’s Mary Poppins and all to the good. Our musical Meryl. Her father was Jason Soranno who has a great, limber walk and joy in all the horrible things he gets to do. His awful solo “All I know” was served to the audience with a spoon and we ate it up. Their son is played catatonically by Daniel Jantson. Mom’s dance teacher Rudolpho is Roan Butterfield and he is most expressive with his hips.

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Photo by Willie Short

Off at school, Miss Honey is Matilda’s teacher, and a more shining example of nurturing, beneficence could not be found than in Elizabeth McGovern’s sweet portrait, worthy of all Matilda’s hugs. There’s also great relief from the abuse rained down on Matilda and the students by the stories Matilda tells the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, sweetly played by Grace Van Bowen. Finally, towering over the rest of the company is Chris Frazier’s Miss Trunchbull. A figure of implacable force and spite Frazier plays Trunchbull with a deadpan commitment and not a hint of camp. Her abuse and physical threats are all the more serious if one can never truly forget the ridiculous character they emanate from. It’s a great performance.

This Dickensian world of mistreated children (“Nicholas Nickleby” gets a shout out!) who rise up and sing power-pop anthems like “Revolting Children” is right up my alley. I enjoyed Dahl very much as a child and this musical has done well by his stark contrast of good and evil with “When I Grow Up” ably providing much-needed comfort. Here, Kirchner uses see-saws and other playground games with a daisy chain snaking through as the song builds. It’s a sweet respite and I nearly wish it were longer. All of the children deserve huge props for sticking with this show and making it to opening night. The children’s group numbers at school have a charged excitement especially punctuated with JJ Razzano’s flips. I hope it’s as much fun for them to perform as it is to watch.

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Photo by Willie Short

It’s directed with great energy, invention, and traffic control by Chuck Kraus, musical direction by Brandon Jones, and the sound in the Park, designed by Tommy Rosati, was beautiful Tuesday night. The rocking band was led by Brian Axford. Great, spiky, angular, and muscular choreography by Ashley-Simone Kirchner. The set was by Sam Reilly with its grim labyrinth of dark sewer holes, prison gates, and see-saws for “When I Grow Up.” Eye-catching costumes which included public school uniforms and the family of grotesqueries were by Hollie Wooldridge and Katherine Scott.

“Matilda” is an explosively imaginative call for children’s empowerment to stand for what’s right. I feel better just knowing that’s playing in the Park for the next week and a half. Here’s to Revolting Children!

Through 8/14

Tickets: www.playhousestage.org

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