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BWW Review: Trunchbulls of the World, Unite! MATILDA THE MUSICAL Takes Over the Orpheum

Grrrrr -- what are the nasty adults among us to do? And what rebellious notions, pray tell, has the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis been promoting in its recent productions? First, there was poor newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer -- his presses halted by the young NEWSIES; and now, even in the hallowed halls of the rule-riveted school run by that singular educator, Miss Agatha Trunchbull What is an iron-willed despot to do?

Whom can we blame for this tide of events? Well, there's the originator of the source material, certainly -- one Roald Dahl. Oh, you may argue, didn't he write such charmers as CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. Even so, he also was -- drum roll, please -- the short story writer whose works appealed to one Alfred Hitchcock; indeed, such dark-tinged tales as "Lamb to the Slaughter," "Dip in the Pool," and "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" provided fodder for the half hour anthology series hosted (and sometimes directed) by the "Master of Suspense." Beware of Dahl: His light tales have sinister overtones, and his sinister tales are leavened by light.

We can also blame one Matilda Wormwood. Who does this child think she is? It's as if Shirley Temple or Orphan Annie had been invaded by Stephen King's "Carrie White" (with her telekinetic gifts, spirited and spunky Lily Brooks O'Briant -- alternating the role with Sarah McKinley Austin and Savannah Grace Elmer -- delivers what one might deem . . . a "moving" performance). Now, in a typical Shirley Temple vehicle, the poor tyke is often left an orphan at the mercy of nasty foster parents; here, however, Matilda has parents of her own. So what if that terpsicihorean temptress Mrs. Wormwood takes lessons from her well-oiled teacher Rudolpho? So what if poor Mr. Wormwood, disappointed that Matilda turned out not to be a son fit to stand alongside sluggish brother Michael, tries to "make ends meet" by pawning off junk vehicles to the Russian mafia?

Oh, yes, the printed word -- let's not forget that! The so-called heroines of MATILDA THE MUSICAL are all about letters, words, and thoughts -- Mrs. Phelps, the sympathetic librarian; the simpering "Miss Honey," a kind of surrogate mother for Matilda; and, of course, the child herself. Mr. Dahl (channeled here through a book by Dennis Kelly and some empathetic, witty songs by Tim Minchin) keeps dropping names of -- ugh -- writers. Moreover, that set design by Rob Howell -- all Scrabble-like tiles (some, dangerously anagrammatic, even SPELL "Matilda" and "story" and so forth) -- would turn a book burner into a veritable arsonist.

Tongue no longer in cheek, I can safely state that MATILDA THE MUSICAL is a delightfully engaging musical. The adults -- for the most part monstrous and grotesque -- are a self-centered, overbearing group. Cassie Silva's "Mrs. Wormwood" could be a British incarnation of ALL the Kardashians and Jersey housewives (she thinks, before Matilda's birth, that she has just put on a little weight); with her single-minded attention to her dance lessons with "Rudolpho" (Jaquez Andre Sims, oozing sexuality and unctuousness) would never make her Mother of the Year; and her spouse (a hideously clad Quinn Mattfeld, whose opening number in Act II, "Telly," suggests why television used to be known as "the idiot box") seems sprung from the joke shop in HAIRSPRAY. Of course, there's that shot put-, child-hurling headmistress "Trunchbull" (all bustier and warts, and played with a wink by the talented David Abeles), a sort of combination "Miss Hannigan"/"Nurse Ratched" by way of the Olympics.

While all of these characters are fun, it's little Matilda and her allies who emerge victorious. Jennifer Blood's "straight" performance as the sympathetic, loving "Miss Honey" is a variation on ANNIE's "Grace"; and she gets to sing a couple of lovely tunes ("This Little Girl" and the sweet "My House"). As "Mrs. Phelps," the librarian captivated by Matilda's "stories," Ora Jones' Jamaican-like accent and dress represent yet another original aspect of the production. Still, it's a sterling cast of children who shine (Evan Gray is a joy as the cake-eating "Bruce Bogtrotter); and, again, sensible little Miss O'Briant is a worthy heroine. Director Matthew Warchus, with Associate Director Thomas Caruso, has delivered a spirited, entertaining musical with a lesson (in fact, I was reminded of the ending of SPARTACUS, and if you're familiar with the ending of that Stanley Kubrick classic, you'll see what I mean by the children's deliberate misspellings at the end of the musical). With imaginative choreography by Peter Darling and orchesrations and additional music by Chris Nightingale. Photo courtesy of the Orpheum. Through January 17.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)