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Friday, June 14, 2024

Theatre review: Matilda the Musical is mischievous, magical, and marvellous

Good triumphs in this uplifting story of a young girl who dreams of a better life

If ever there was a reason for moving Christmas to June, this is it.  In fact there couldn’t be a better holiday or celebration gift for any family than a visit to Matilda the Musical.  It appeals to all ages, cultures and religions. It could equally appeal to educators and artists in every discipline. And advocates for human rights should love it.

The audience demographic on opening night spread across the board. Parents and grandparents brought their children and grandchildren, despite the late hour on a regular school day. Predictably, young girls dominated.

Matilda the Musical is based on Roald Dahl’s popular story, Matilda. The narrative focuses on the courage and eventual triumph over evil of a small girl with extraordinary powers and chutzpah. Matilda Wormwood’s story is not an uncommon one in Dahl’s extensive repertoire where dark adult souls are invariably brought to justice by their youthful victims.

When Matilda’s outrageously self-centred parents suddenly find themselves expecting a second child, they assume it will be a brother for their catatonic son Michael. Their profound disappointment when a girl is placed in their arms leads to their cruel treatment of her. They ridicule her love of literature and learning and barely acknowledge her existence. A wheeler dealer of the worst kind, her father insists on addressing her as “Boy!” despite her constant protests.

Matilda plans her revenge in a deliciously witty song with the repeated refrain, “Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.” It is an example of the extent of Tim Minchin’s darkly humorous lyrics and music, completely in tune with Dahl’s dark sense of humour.

Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of the original story is likewise hard-hitting and humorous, although Mr Wormwood’s utterance of “Oh, crap!” grates somewhat. Miss Trunchbull’s “newt in her knickers” makes for a wittier kind of rudeness, more appropriate in a children’s show.

This co-production, under the creative direction of Daryl Cloran, began life at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. From there, it progressed to the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. By the time it reached Vancouver’s Stanley Alliance in mid-May, every glitch had been ironed out and the production now runs as smoothly as the chocolate from Charlie’s factory.

The actors have been chosen from all three cities, while the children in the chorus come from the one currently hosting the tour.

It may seem churlish to single out specific performances in a production so well cast, so perfectly designed and directed, and so slick in its presentation. However, some cannot go unmentioned. As Matilda would say, “That’s not right.”

Vancouver’s own actor-cum-contortionist Ben Elliott is superb as the small-minded crook, Mr Wormwood. Lauren Bowler is in full-throated command as Wormwood’s curvaceous wife, obsessed with her vain ballroom dance partner, Rudolpho, played by flexible, eye-catching Julio Fuentes.

Edmonton’s John Ullyatt inhabits the vile Headmistress of Matilda’s elementary school, Crunchem Hall, with such conviction and humour that all pales in his/her overbearing presence. Miss Agatha Trunchbull is the epitome of the transgender British pantomime dame and Ullyatt delivers more than one show-stopping number with a finesse earned by his extensive experience as an actor and street performer.

On opening night Georgia Acken played Matilda, a part she shares with Thailey Roberge. Acken’s pure voice and down-to-earth interpretation tugs at heartstrings, particularly when she turns life around for her beloved teacher, Miss Honey.  Alison MacDonald convincingly plays the kind-hearted teacher tormented by the hateful Miss Trunchbull. Her powerful voice blends beautifully with Acken’s when the two join forces against the Nazi- styled head of Crunchem Hall.

Georgia Acken and Thailey Roberge alternate as Matilda Wormwood in Matilda the Musical. Photo by David Cooper.
Georgia Acken and Thailey Roberge alternate in the title role of this family-friendly show currently playing at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in Vancouver. Photo by David Cooper.

Even non-speaking parts shine. Case in point is hilarious Corben Kushneryk playing Matilda’s TV-addicted brother who rarely moves and speaks in monosyllables and virtual grunts.

There’s not one hiccup in the dancing, cleverly choreographed by Kimberley Rampersad. Nor is there a single bum note in the singing, followed with empathetic precision by the orchestra under Ken Cormier’s expert musical direction. There isn’t an unbelievable moment in the delivery of the biting dialogue either. Nor one slip in the timing of the hilarious if questionable jokes in the fast-paced comedy scenes.

The set, props, lighting and sound are all top rate, although it was difficult to hear the words of the opening number on the first night. That may have had more to do with speed and enunciation than sound and, once the cast settled into its stride, all the words of the other musical numbers were audible and very entertaining.

No one really needs the excuse of a holiday or special celebration to enjoy Matilda the Musical. It’s a celebration in itself: that good is better than bad.

Matilda the Musical with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and a book by Dennis Kelly. Directed by Daryl Cloran. An Arts Club Theatre Company production in association with Citadel Theatre and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until July 14. Visit for tickets and information.

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