Wild child: Royal MTC's energetic Matilda the Musical is a witty charmer
Stylish production, big performances, clever lyrics overcome too-long running time of Roald Dahl adaptation
Roald Dahl's Matilda may be more than 30 years old, but the story seems particularly suited for the present, with its themes of girl power, fighting back against bullies, and the triumph of substance, intellect and decency over brash vapidity.
So the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's co-production (with Edmonton's Citadel Theatre and Vancouver's Arts Club) of Matilda the Musical — a 2010 West End and Broadway hit — feels timely indeed.
And thanks to its feel-good messages, a big and energetic production, and a lovely turn from its young lead, it's just the kind of charmer Manitobans need on a cold January night.
The musical (with a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by comedian Tim Minchin) opens with a bang, and the talented chorus of kids singing and dancing their way through Miracle, a sly number about how supremely, almost superhumanly, gifted most parents think their kids are.
The irony in Matilda is that the parents of the young girl who actually fits that description want nothing to do with her.
While five-year-old Matilda Wormwood is impossibly smart and thoughtful beyond her years, her vacuous and morally bankrupt parents (Lauren Bowler and Ben Elliott, a scene-stealer with his slick performance as Matilda's used-car salesman dad) are baffled by her attachment to books, learning and fairness.
Things get worse still when she's sent to Crunchem, a school run by a sadistic, child-hating former Olympic hammer-throw champion named Miss Trunchbull (John Ullyatt, a crowd favourite in his deliciously, note-perfectly over-the-top turn as the mannish and twisted headmistress).
The only bright lights in Matilda's life are librarian Mrs. Phelps (Sharon Crandall), who encourages Matilda's gifts as a storyteller, and the girl's sweet teacher, Miss Honey (a golden-voiced Alison MacDonald).
Over the course of the 165-minute (with intermission) musical, Matilda and her classmates — along with the timid Miss Honey — struggle to find a way to fight back against the tyrannical Trunchbull.
This is Roald Dahl, though, so it's certainly not all sweetness. Like all Dahl stories, there's an element of the fantastic here and a definite dark streak — and the underlying sense that being a kid is tough in an often capricious world run by adults.
Matilda still offers plenty of delights, though, not least of which is a charming performance from the lead actor (Winnipeg's Anna Anderson-Epp on opening night — she alternates the role with Edmonton's Lilla Solymos).
On opening, Anderson-Epp delivered an assured performance, making Matilda relatably grounded — not overly precocious, but a kid who just happens to be a little smarter than everyone around her. She also showed off a spectacular singing voice.
She's backed by lots of other promising young talent in the ensemble of kids who play her classmates and get to show off strong voices and some particularly high-energy dance moves in the rousing closing number, Revolting Children.
While Minchin's music is unremarkable — it's inoffensive, but the tunes are neither catchy nor memorable — his lyrics show a razor-sharp wit that's a perfect match for the subversive and weird source material.
He shows off that wit in tunes like Loud, Mrs. Wormwood's ode to the virtues of volume over smarts ("What you know matters less/Than the volume with which what you don't know's expressed") or School Song, an elegantly clever A to Z of the horrors that await children in Trunchbull's school.
Director Daryl Cloran's production makes the most of the strengths of the musical and his cast, with terrific energy (particularly in Kimberley Rampersad's crisp choreography) and style to spare (especially in designer Cory Sincennes's delightfully off-kilter set and often cartoonish costumes).
It struggles, though, under the musical's indulgent and over-stuffed running time — it really doesn't need to stretch to nearly three hours, and Matilda would frankly probably be even more engaging with a good half-hour trim.
That running time — far too long for many kids — is particularly unfortunate in a show that otherwise is quite family-friendly.
While less would be more, though, it's hard to complain too much about spending time with a kid as likable as Matilda.
Matilda the Musical runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch Mainstage until Feb. 2. It then runs at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre from Feb. 16 to March 17, and the Arts Club's Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in Vancouver from May 16 to July 14.