M&D’s long-delayed ‘Matilda’ a delightful musical
BY ALEC KERR
CONWAY DAILY SUN
CONWAY — M&D Playhouse’s production of “Matilda The Musical” has been two years in the making. “Matilda” was a week away from opening in 2020 when COVID put the country on lockdown.
The cast was told to hold tight and wait for things to blow over. Weeks became months and, eventually, years. While M&D did present several productions last year, due to its cast of more than 30, ”Matilda” wasn’t feasible to safely produce until this year.
New auditions were held and many of the original cast was able to return. Most of the children in “Matilda” are supposed to be first graders, but they were cast a bit older; add two years to that and they are even older still.
Even so, as director Mary Basoni wrote in her director’s notes, the young cast “embraces the feelings that all children have on the first day of school, be it elementary, middle or high school, knowing they are entering a new and intimidating environment.”
“Matilda,” which opened Thursday, March 24, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse and is being performed Thursday through Sunday for the next three weeks, is based on Roald Dahl’s classic 1988 children’s novel of the same name. A 1996 film adaptation also increased its popularity and lasting impact on pop culture.
Unlike the film version, the musical, featuring music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly, returns the setting to England. The story centers on Matilda (Isabelle Frechette), a brilliant 5-year old girl who is reading and doing complex math well beyond her years. Her dullard parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Grayson Smith and Hannah-Jo Weisberg), are disgusted by her intelligence and wonder why she doesn’t watch TV like their monosyllabic-speaking son Michael (Elias Sawyer).
Matilda is eager to escape her parents by going to school but it is a mixed blessing. She finds support and encouragement from the kind Miss Honey (Jennifer Bradeen) but is tormented by the cruel headmistress Mrs. Trunchbull (Mark Sickler). Matilda also spends time at the library where she tells the librarian Mrs. Phelps (Angeligue Sawyer) the tragic love story of an acrobat (Chelsea Hupalowsky) and an escapologist (Aimee Frechette/Stacy Sand).
The rest of the cast is populated by the student body of Matilda’s school. Some of Matilda’s classmates get standout moments, including Bruce (Charlie Nourse) who must face the consequences of stealing Trunchbull’s cake; Amanda Thripp (Katie Laracy) whose pigtails offend Trunchbull; and Matilda’s self-proclaimed best friend, Lavender (Nola Bradeen). Nourse gets to take lead vocals at the top of “Revolting Children,” and Nola Bradeen has a fun stage presence, especially during a crucial scene involving a newt.
Given the large cast, “Matilda” is a difficult show to stage. There are several large ensemble numbers with 10 or more people on stage. These ensemble set pieces are well choreographed by Aimee Frechette. Notable songs are “When I Grow Up,” which impressively incorporates a series of swings hung from the rafters, and “Revolting Children,” a song that plays with the double meaning of the word revolting. The story of the acrobat and the escapologist is also beautifully staged as a shadow play.
Bastoni has also done a good job getting everyone’s singing to a high-level of quality and in cultivating pleasing harmonies. The solo performances by Isabelle Frechette on “Naughty” and “Quiet” and Jennifer Bradeen on “Pathetic” and “This Little Girl” have a pure and lovely quality that is quite affecting. On the broader side of things, Smith is hilarious on “Telly” with Mr. Wormwood proclaiming he learned everything he knows from watching television. Weisberg is equally amusing on “Loud” in which Mrs. Wormwood explains why she chose looks over books.
Unfortunately, the stage at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse can be unforgiving when it comes to sound, especially during large numbers. When there are four or fewer singers, it isn’t really an issue but with larger ensembles it can become difficult to make out the lyrics. This is most notable on “School Song,” which is too bad because the lyrics coincide with the letters of the alphabet that flash across the top of the proscenium in an imaginative bit of staging.
Even with this shortcoming, “Matilda” is worth seeing for the quality of the performances. Isobelle Frechette is a charming and engaging Matilda who ably carries the show. Her relationship with Jennifer Bradeen’s Miss Honey is sweet and moving. A moment where they share a hug is small but carries significant emotional weight.
Smith and Weisberg are scene stealers every time they are on stage. Their over-the-top antics are laugh-out-loud funny and are enhanced by the garish and tacky costumes provided by Patty Hibbert. Smith has created an impish little laugh that points to a future where he could play The Joker.
Sickler is an appropriately intimidating villain, who we relish seeing get his comeuppance. He is clearly having fun tormenting the young cast. Hupalowsky is also very funny as Rudulfo, Mrs. Wormwood’s flamboyant dance partner.
The set design by Deb Jasien transforms the proscenium arch into a series of large books which go inward to fill the stage as well. A screen with projected images is also utilized to help with scene transitions and locations. The images on the screen are perfectly blended into the scenic design.
“Matilda” is a wonderful show with strong themes of standing up against bullies and liars. It promotes wit and intelligence over cruelty and ignorance. It is warm, funny and uplifting, making it an ideal show for early spring as we shake off the remnants of winter and (hopefully) the pandemic.
For more information or tickets go to mdplayhouse.com or call (603) 733-5275.