by Kevin Shaw
Words are powerful. Words matter. Words can be used for good or they can be used to cause tremendous damage. If you believe the antiquated cliché, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me,” you’ve never had the right (or wrong) words said to you. The “N” word for African-Americans, the “F” word for homosexuals or the “R” word for people with mental disabilities, etc. are all words they have caused (and continue to cause) tremendous damage. Perhaps one can train themselves to not let a stranger’s unkind words hurt as much, but what about when those words come from a lover or a teacher or a parent? Unlike a broken bone, such hurtful words can do damage for a lifetime, never to heal. Children are such vulnerable little things—especially to words. Words of encouragement can help them walk, tie their shoes, swing a baseball bat, etc. However, words of cruelty can break them forever. What’s a child to do when they’re bombarded with an endless diatribe from almost every adult in their life? How does a little girl survive being called a “boy” everyday by her father when she’s a girl and a “maggot” every day at school by the headmistress? How does she escape when there’s nowhere to run? Where’s her salvation? The answer? In books! The right words strung together in a book can fire one’s imagination and transport them to new lands and different times. Fantasy
and escape through words in books turns out to be a nice match for venomous words from adults. Such is the discovery for the well-read and precocious Matilda in Playhouse on the Square’s charming, yet distorted world of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical running now through July 14th .
Under the guest-direction and choreography by Jim Christian, Matilda seems to aim for and probably hits its targeted audience (mainly kids) with colorful sets, lively choreography and overly-exaggerated characters. Although the show deals with the emotional and physical abuse of children, it’s done in such a way as to keep things from ever getting too frightening, but still making its point. Matilda is born to boorish parents and attends a sadistically-led school, but finds respite in telling stories to the local librarian (Mrs. Phelps) and respect from her school teacher (Miss Honey) who recognizes Matilda for the genius that she is. It’s a story of triumph and perseverance through the power of words. Unfortunately, in a show about words, Mr. Christian did a massive disservice to his little star by not helping her communicate those words clearly to the audience.
Let me be clear: From the nanosecond Olivia K. Kaiser burst on to the stage as Matilda, I could tell she was the right girl to carry this show. She can sing, dance and act! She is a machine! She’s the “Energizer Bunny!” She just keeps going and going and going and won’t stop! She is clearly a disciplined performer. Unfortunately, I have to assume in an effort to get the English accent right, her director put more emphasis on authenticity rather than on understandability. The accent, combined with her rate of speech, left me virtually in the dark understanding any of her spoken words. It’s not easy when you know the script and have been working on a show for several weeks to remember that the audience may be hearing the dialogue for the first time and is not able to plug in the words that you already know. In a show about words, I was at a loss for them.
In yet again strong performances, Nathan McHenry and Brooke Papritz, as Matilda’s parents (Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood) are appropriately comical, cartoonish and dreadful. Young audiences may laugh at them, but adults in the audience will know that, unfortunately, they’re not all that uncommon.
Ryan Scott as headmistress Trunchbull is a walking sight gag who loves to torture and call her children “maggots.” While she was appropriately awful, there was still plenty of room to take her outlandish ways to new heights. More evil please!
Kim Sanders is a delight as the local librarian (Mrs. Phelps) who honors, respects and validates Matilda as the wonderful, imaginative child that she is. In a dismissive world, Sanders’ Phelps is the adult who perfectly recognizes and gives her the attention she deserves.
If there was ever a motherly figure onstage who makes you want to crawl into her arms and sing you a lullaby, it’s Emily Z. Pettet as Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey. Ms. Pettet’s portrayal was elegant, classy, kind, forgiving and her singing was rich and as warm as, well, honey. She’s the perfect antidote to Matilda’s previous encounters with adults. She’s also this production’s “dream come true.”
The ensemble made up of kids and young adults is top-notch! Their choreography is tight and strong and it is clear they’re having a ball onstage—which makes them fun to watch!
Technically, the show succeeds without necessarily pulling focus in a good or bad way, but turning on the mics before the actors start speaking should happen sooner rather than later and the magical handwriting on the chalkboard is pretty amazing to see.
Take your family to see Matilda the Musical. In this world of smart phones and tablets, it’s nice to be reminded of the joy of books and using one’s imagination. This show teaches children about perseverance and the freedom to be themselves even before they’re all “grown up.” It teaches them about the influence of words—what they read, what they hear and what they say. Yes, words have power, but learning which words to embrace and which ones to reject is a lesson that will last a lifetime.
Now through July 14, 2019