British novelist Roald Dahl possessed that rare quality in an author of children's books: the ability to captivate the imaginations of his young readers and simultaneously entertain their parents. His distinctive witty prose, dark humor, and eccentric characters are beloved worldwide: a daunting precedent for the Royal Shakespeare Companywhen it premiered the musical adaptation of MATILDA in 2010, with a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. This production proved wildly successful in the West End (where it is still running), on Broadway, and internationally. Now, Drury Lane Theatre presents the regional premiere, directed and choreographed by Mitch Sebastian.
Audrey Edwards and Natalie Galla share the title role of Matilda Wormwood, a child prodigy whose extraordinary mental powers are rivaled only by her strong sense of justice. With a sleazy car salesman for a father (Jackson Evans), a mother who cares only for her bleach-blonde looks and ballroom dancing competitions (Stephanie Gibson), and a brother (Evan C. Dolan) whose wits have been dulled by the family's favorite pastime of watching "telly", Matilda is an utter misfit in her own home. Finding solace in reading countless books, visiting with her friendly librarian (Linda Bright Clay), and inventing her own stories, Matilda soon enters a whole new world of challenges and adventures when she begins school at age five.
Enter headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Sean Fortunato), a former hammer-throwing champion who now rules the pupils of the aptly named Crunchem Hall with an iron fist. Fortunately, the first-year students find a foil to Miss Trunchbull in their kind young teacher, Miss Honey (Eben K. Logan), who immediately notices Matilda's special abilities and takes the lonely girl under her wing. In return, Matilda helps her beloved teacher to overcome the demons in her own past, as well as leading her classmates in a revolt against Miss Trunchbull's cruel regime.
Inevitably, this musical places tough demands on child actors. Tim Minchin's whimsical score perfectly convey's Dahl's madcap imagination, and his cleverest, most rapid-fire lyrics are often given to the children. As an additional challenge, actors of all ages must master British accents in their singing as well as their speech. In Drury Lane's production, the result is that many of the children's best moments fall flat due to unintelligible lyrics. Nevertheless, their enthusiasm is infectious, and several show promise as budding young comedic actors.
Speaking of humor, the adult actors in comedic roles are a highlight of this production. First up are the Wormwoods: clad in 1980's neon (designed by Theresa Ham), they are constantly glued to their tube television, bickering among themselves, or mocking Matilda for her love of reading. As Mr. Wormwood, Jackson Evans displays a flair for physical comedy, particularly in the scenes when Matilda plays pranks on him, turning his vanity to her advantage in revenge for his verbal abuse. Stephanie Gibson's Mrs. Wormwood is loud and proud of her own lack of book smarts (she even sings a whole song about it), and her shameless flirtations with her ballroom dancing partner, Rudolpho (Alex Benoit), are a riot.
When the action shifts to Crunchem Hall with a smooth turn of Jeffrey D. Kmiec's revolving set, Sean Fortunato gives a delightfully wicked turn as Miss Trunchbull. Roald Dahl typically crafted his villains as slow-witted objects of mockery, exaggerating their sadistic qualities for darkly comedic effect. Miss Trunchbull is no exception: each of Fortunato's eyebrow-heavy frowns and sneering smiles are calculated to terrify the students, and his sing-song falsetto can change to maniacal laughter in an instant. When Matilda and her friends ultimately outsmart Miss Trunchbull, with some help from Miss Honey, it's a victory for kindness and a celebration of the freedom of childhood.
Such optimistic ideals are the true message of every Roald Dahl story, despite his penchant for morbid humor. In addition, MATILDA champions the benefits of reading and working hard in school, in contrast to the mind-numbing effects of technology. (And to think, Dahl wrote the novel in 1988, when television and video games were his primary concerns.) Although the stage adaptation could be cut down to a more efficient length, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin have captured the spirit of the original novel, both its humor and its heart-warming qualities. At Drury Lane, the comedic performances take center stage, but these alone are well worth the ticket price.
Roald Dahl'S MATILDA THE MUSICAL plays through June 23 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181. Tickets are available at 630.530.0111 or drurylanetheatre.com.