BWW Review: Fascinating MATILDA Brings Her Magic to Cumberland County Playhouse Through August 18
Matilda Wormwood is a fascinating character: Creative and talented, she's inquisitive and positively brilliant, telekinetic and gifted - and despite her rather questionable upbringing (her father's a boorish oaf who refuses to acknowledge she's not a "he;" her mother is a loud-mouthed, overly made-up harridan who'd prefer a paso doble with her ballroom dance partner Rudolpho; and her brother is best described as a dullard who's been mollified his whole life by whatever happens to be on the telly) and the harsh realities of her life - she manages to remain upbeat and optimistic, the way we want our spunky and plucky literary heroines to be.
Thanks to Roald Dahl, who created the young and winsome Miss Wormwood - and to Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly who have brought her tale to vivid life via musical theater - and who wrote her story with all its hilarity, hijinks and heart to make her one of literature's favorite characters, the magic of Matilda will live on forever.
Now, through August 18, audiences at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse have the opportunity to fall in love with Matilda and her ragtag and inspiring band of schoolmates as they take on an adventure that is certain to delight and to engage. Directed by Jess Griffin and featuring a cast of fresh and energetic performers who bring Matilda The Musical to glorious life onstage, CCP has another resounding hit to its credit, which might be quite unlike anything that's come before it and heralds even more technical and design innovation that sets the company apart from all others in the region.
Ten-year-old Sarah Hedrick (who dazzled us at the performance we reviewed) shares the eponymous title role with Kyra Crosby and she steps onto the stage to claim her place among the legendary entertainers who over the years have become synonymous with musical theater at Cumberland County Playhouse. Hedrick (and Crosby, we are assured) more than holds her own against the company's inimitable Jason Ross, who creates an indelible impression as Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the dastardly and overpowering headmistress (and former British hammer-throwing champion) of Crunchem School.
A hit on London's West End, on Broadway (where it ran for more than 1,500 performances, garnering 11 Tony Award nominations and winning five awards), on tour and throughout the world, Matilda The Musical is a bona fide hit for Cumberland County Playhouse, thanks to Griffin's superb direction, Leila Jones' athletic and complex choreography, Ron Murphy's expert music direction (his ten-member band play the score with passion and verve), and a design aesthetic that is visually stunning, if not eye-popping. The thorough commitment of the company to undertake such a challenging production results in entertainment that's appropriate for audiences of all ages.
Tom Tutino's set design is gorgeous: surrounded by shelf after shelf of books, it's no wonder Matilda finds respite from reality in reading in the world of his design. Christopher Van Tuyl lights the expansive stage with color and precision and Andy Wallach's costumes, as has come to be expected, help to define the characters with great wit and exquisite style.
Matilda The Musical is filled with outrageous moments of comedy involving wildly uproarious characters in all manner of onstage action that will have you doubled over in laughter from the very start ("Miracle" is raucous good fun to kick off the show), but perhaps surprisingly at its very core is a hopeful tale that is sure to warm your heart and to inspire flights of fancy and adventure of your own long after the final curtain falls. Along the way, Minchin and Kelly have worked their own particular brand of magic over Dahl's source material to create a fast-moving and engaging piece of theater that is unique and unexpected.
Special attention should be paid to a pair of Act Two numbers - "When I Grow Up" and "Revolting Children" - and Act One's "Miracle" and "Bruce," for splendid examples of what makes musical theater so transformative and transportive. Leila Jones' choreography, along with Griffin's staging and Murphy's musical direction, ensure truly memorable moments to be savored for a long time to come.
To Griffin's credit, she's assembled a notable ensemble of multi-talented performers to bring the people in Dahl's novel to life with staggering commitment. Hedrick is a force of nature, a theater performer who is certain to delight audiences for years to come. Unlike some younger actors, she doesn't just parrot the dialogue; instead, Hedrick resolutely and impressively takes on the character of Matilda and brings her to life with an onstage authenticity that belies her youth. Hedrick manages to capture every facet of Matilda Wormwood's personality, while commanding the stage like a boss.
Equally as impressive as her ability to affect a genuine characterization, Hedrick goes toe-to-toe with Ross as Miss Trunchbull, a feat that older, more experienced actors might covet for their own resumes. Ross, whose virtuosity is apparent every time he steps onto the stage (his Sweeney Todd won him a First Night Award for the 2018 season, for example) and his Agatha Trunchbull is clearly no exception. His interaction with the rest of Griffin's young cast (and the older actors, as well, truth be told) is exceptionally witty and amusing - and downright fun - and offers something of a master class for every person lucky enough to witness Matilda The Musical.
If Hedrick and Ross represent the pinnacle of what is to be found in Matilda, then they are joined by the remainder of Griffin's wonderful cast atop the list of attributes that ensure success. As Matilda's feckless, ne'er-do-well and conniving father, Britt Hancock delivers a deliciously riotous portrayal, drawing on the history of the British music hall and American vaudeville, to do so. He is ably matched by Leila Jones (the very same young woman responsible for the production's spectacular choreography) as his over-dramatic wife, whose over-the-top performance is ideally suited for her character. Together, they are sublimely ridiculous, but when aided and abetted by Cory Clark (as their son Michal) and Charlie Munday (as her ballroom dance partner Rudolpho), they are simply unparalleled. The comedy never stops, particularly when these four are on the stage, engaging in whatever zany repartee the script prescribes.
Providing the show with its heart, though, is Larren Woodward as Matilda's supportive and inspiring teacher Miss Honey, who captivates with a sweet disposition that's underscored with a certain poignancy that could be cloying in lesser hands. Woodward is perfectly cast and she provides the audience someone with whom they can identify among the gaggle of richly drawn, if slightly unbelievable, characters. Likewise, Weslie Webster, as the librarian Mrs. Phelps who provides solace and inspiration to Matilda, exudes charisma as the young girl's most ardent admirer.
The other younger actors, who share the classroom with Matilda, are amazing in their range: Tori Smith, Kylan Ritchie, Madelyn Hedrick, Luke Patton, Shelton Tison, Maggie Cook, Kendall Walker, Luke Smith and Altair Zentgraf are triple-threat talents with promising futures ahead of them - let's just hope we see more of them at CCP in the coming years.
Among the adults in the cast making strong impressions, Ross Griffin is good as Mrs. Wormwood's doctor who delivers Matilda, Chris Hallowes and Fiona Mowbray are terrific as the escapologist and the acrobat who figure prominently in the story with which Matilda regales Mrs. Phelps, and Justin Burr steals the final scene as an avuncular, if threatening, Russian gangster.
Matilda The Musical. Book by Dennis Kelly. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Based on the children's novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. Directed by Jess Griffin. Musical direction by Ron Murphy. Choreography by Leila Jones. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Through August 18. For details, go to www.ccplayhouse.com or call (931) 484-5000. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).