BWW Review: The Muny's MATILDA is Magically Mary
Mary Engelbreit, that is. Roald Dahl's Matilda, playing now through August 11 at The Muny in Forest Park, is inspired-the entire production-by the artwork of St. Louis' own Mary Engelbreit, and is it ever something to see! Even on first glance of the curtain, which is painted with colorful stacks of books, polka dots, and hearts on a vine, one can tell this show is going to be a special kind of Muny magic. And sure enough, that inspiration follows gorgeously and cohesively in all technical aspects - in Paige Hathaway's scenic design, Leon Dobkowski's costuming, Rob Denton's lighting, John Shivers & David Patridge's sound design, and Nathan W. Scheuer's video design. The many shades of reds and blues and purples and greens are a visual smorgasbord, the details rich and sweet in every single checker and stripe and cherry and tulip. It all seems a collaboration that was destined to be.
Based on the 1988 middle-grade novel Matilda, by Roald Dahl, this is a 2010 musical created by the Royal Shakespeare Company with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and a book by Dennis Kelly. It is a seven-time Olivier Award and five-time Tony Award winner that still runs in London's West End. It is a family show--the story of a kind-hearted, clever young bookworm and storyteller who is trapped in a world full of selfish, cruel, and foolish people. Matilda's swindling, used-car salesman father torments her for being born missing her "frank and beans," and calls her a boy throughout her young life, an error Matilda repeatedly corrects. Her mother, a dancer obsessed with looks (not books), and with winning the "bi-annual international amateur salsa and ballroom dancing championship," ridicules Matilda for being a thinking girl. Add to that a formidable headmistress whose unjust rules and intimidation affect everyone--even Matilda's brilliant teacher--and things are pretty grim. But as Matilda uses her imagination and the powers of her mind to rewrite her own sad story, goodness and love prevail.
The star-studded cast features Mattea Conforti as Matilda, who made her Broadway debut as the title role in Matilda at age 9 and has also appeared on Broadway in Sunday in the Park with George and in the original cast of Disney's Frozen. Conforti sparkles as she infuses the role with the perfect measurements of purity and mischief, her singing voice so sweet yet sophisticated that you want her to keep singing and never, ever stop. Laura Michelle Kelly, an Olivier Award winner for her title role in the world premiere of Disney's Mary Poppins, is an excellent match for Conforti as a picture-perfect Miss Honey--Matilda's teacher and chief supporter, who fights for Matilda even as she fights her own demons. Other notable performances come from Josh Grisetti, whose interpretation of Matilda's father, Mr. Wormwood, is bursting with hilarious physical comedy and well-chosen interactions that make him an endearing villain in a daring green plaid suit. Darlesia Cearcy plays a vivacious Mrs. Phelps, the animated librarian who feeds Matilda's imagination with love and sincere interest. Ann Harada, as Mrs. Wormwood, provides many laughs during her comedic interactions with her startlingly skilled dance partner Rudolpho (Sean Ewing). As a comedy actor, Harada works, but it does seem that Mrs. Wormwood should be a better dancer, given her obsession. And then there's the remarkable Beth Malone, who last appeared in the Broadway revival of Angels in America and is among the first female performers to play the foul, punishing headmistress, Miss Agatha Trunchbull (who funnily thinks all kids are disgusting little maggots). Admittedly, I (who am an adoring Beth Malone fan and commend her outstanding performance in this role) saw this role played by a male in the Broadway production, and for all the nuanced lines and implications, still do prefer a bigger, burlier Miss Trunchbull.
Notably good numbers in this production include the entire company in an interactive and lively rendition of "School Song," Conforti in the delightful earworm, "Naughty," Grisetti who brings big giggles in "Telly," and the entire company including the Muny Kid and Teen youth ensemble in an empowering finale, "Revolting Children." It is almost impossible to tell that The Muny works on such a short timeline to produce a show of this magnitude. Beth Crandall's choreography is fresh and fun, utilizing and filling the huge Muny stage with exciting action. And while there were some microphone issues on opening night, hopefully those minor glitches have been resolved.
All in all, this is an entirely charming production to finish out The Muny's 101st season and with all the huge talent, a beloved story, and so many singable songs along with the categorically gorgeous inspiration by our own Mary Engelbreit, it would just be... well... naughty to miss it! Truly. Bonus: there's a useful surprise keepsake in each playbill. Thank you, Ms. Engelbreit.