BWW Review: MATILDA Brings Big Magic to Milwaukee's FIRST STAGE
Alphabet blocks the size of shipping crates sit about the stage, as words like read, cake, maggot, phys-ed, escapologist, and rebellion lie scrawled along the length of a giant chalkboard, rife with foreshadowing. Kids in the audience wriggle in anticipation as a tuneless smattering of chords fills the Todd Wehr Theater, soon giving way to the raucous three-part opening number, "Miracle."
As an ensemble of lucky youngsters sing emphatically of being found exceptionally exceptional by their parents, their exuberance at being so one-in-a-million soon shifts focus to our heroine, Matilda, and her good-for-nothing parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. To sum up, the Wormwoods certainly don't find Matilda to be a miracle, and their colorful vocabulary of vile name-calling is appalling in its poetry. As Matilda grows to the ripe old age of five, she escapes into storytelling and books -- and what books! She zooms through the likes of Jane Austen, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky in a week's time. This child's brain really is an extraordinary miracle, if anyone would take the time to notice.
Enter Miss Honey, Matilda's new teacher -- kind, beloved, and immediately in Matilda's corner. She, along with everyone else at school, must answer to Miss Trunchbull -- a tremendous, towering, menacing, monster of a headmistress, whose motto is "Children are maggots." Can Matilda, Miss Honey, and a ragtag crew of kiddos finally stand up to The Trunchbull and reclaim their miracle status?
As the villainous Miss Trunchbull, Kelly Doherty might shake your faith in a happy ending. We first encounter her foreboding form seated in an ominous control room of blinking TV monitors. Her tone ranges from deliciously dry and disdainful to downright diabolical. She's the kind of baddy one loves to hate, and that is sheer perfection.
Other hateful types, like Matilda's parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, played by Jackson Evans and Molly Rhode, respectively, are just as perfectly cast. Both Evans and Rhode have a history with First Stage -- Evans with a string of acting roles for the company and Rhode having just recently directed First Stage's delightful Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
As the Wormwoods, these two are smarmy, self-centered schmucks, ignorant and indifferent. Yet in spite of their genuinely unpleasant natures, each character is primed for laughs, and Evans and Rhode nail their comedy of terrors. Between Mr. Wormwood's "Telly," an ode to the glories of television, and Mrs. Wormwood's "Loud," a salute to "a little less brains, a lot more hair," Evans and Rhode are dynamite.
Bringing some sweetness to all of the slime is Elizabeth Telford as Miss Honey. Telford's demeanor is every inch believable in her complex blend of self-doubt, wide-eyed hope, and determination. Moreover, her lovely voice rings clear as a bell-especially beautiful in Act Two's touching "My House."
Even with the fantastic song, dance, and comedy on display from the grown-ups in Matilda, it's fitting that the kids still are -- no question -- the runaway stars of the show. There are two ensembles, the Diligent and Determined casts, and three Matildas -- 7th graders Taylor Arnstein, Reese Bell, and Marina Evans.
The production I so thoroughly enjoyed starred Arnstein as Matilda, backed by the Diligents. Arnstein is a fierce firecracker of a performer; she's spunky, pitch-perfect, and a spot-on little professional. From the mischievous "Naughty" to the tender "Quiet," Arnstein moves to laughter and misty-eyed amazement. What a joy!
In fact, all of the young performers stun with their level of skill and professionalism. The ensemble features a range of local middle schoolers and high schoolers, and it's thrilling to see such a talented batch of young triple-threats command the stage. After all, they may very well be the future of Milwaukee theater.
Quick shout-out to sixth grader Max Larson as Bruce Bogtrotter, who, in the story of Matilda, is famously challenged to eat an entire chocolate cake as punishment. Larson later unleashes his inner superstar with the show's final showstopper, "Revolting Children," his soulful wails a jaw-dropping delight.
Just as delightfully staggering is the incredible amount of creativity -- from costumes and sets to choreography and bits of theatrical magic -- that so clearly went into every single moment of Matilda. Choreography by Jayne and Michael Pink (yes, of Milwaukee Ballet fame) is especially ingenious in Act One's "School Song," and the young cast carries it off with sensational attitude and aplomb.
Indeed, Director Jeff Frank's team of all-star creatives and actors is serving up a Broadway-caliber production, made all the more special with First Stage's signature small-scale intimacy and kid-friendly flair. Stay for one of the post-show talk-backs so your youngster can ask their burning questions. Purchase a Roald Dahl book from the merch stand to further encourage a singular Matilda-ish imagination. Snag a cookie and juice box in the lobby during intermission. Truly, you may need sustenance -- this show is the most ambitious yet at First Stage, clocking in at over 2.5 hours. You'd better believe they are over 2.5 hours well spent.