Los Angeles Theater Review: ROALD DAHL’S MATILDA THE MUSICAL (5-Star Theatricals in Thousand Oaks)

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by Tony Frankel on March 25, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

A VAULTING MATILDA

Imagine Annie with psychokinetic powers, Nancy Drew as a mind-reader, or Cinderella acting as her own fairy godmother. Self-empowerment fuels this upbeat, knock-down, pell-mell 2011 musical. A multi-Tony and Olivier award winner, Matilda the Musical is now being given a piping-hot presentation by 5-Star Theatricals  at Kavli Theatre. The much motivated heroine of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel (and 1996 film) is Matilda Wormwood, a plucky British girl struck, almost literally, by the unfairness of the world. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, this tyke seeks shelter, sanity, and liberation in books. Her favorite hand-held device is a Dostoevsky novel.

Because of Matilda’s anti-social independence of mind, the impressionable moppet is pilloried by her boorish parents and doofus brother. Demented dad is an unscrupulous used-car salesman who loves the “telly,” while mindless mom is a libidinous amateur ballerina whose blondness and stupidity must, you hope, be coincidental. Their bibliophile (whose sex the disappointed dad refuses to remember) is even more persecuted by the fascist headmistress Miss Trunchbull. A former Olympic hammer thrower, this hellish matron has her own Guantanamo torture chamber. (Played by a man, the hulking authoritarian, a combination of Miss Hannigan and a linebacker, looks like she’s been chewing steroids for breakfast.) Bullying rears its ugly head in this Dickensian celebration of underdog redemption.

But Matilda has an ally for every nemesis: Besides her rebellious schoolmate victims (“Naughty” never sounded so nice), Matilda can count on the supportive, impoverished, and much wronged grade-school teacher Miss Honey and the sympathetic librarian Mrs. Phelps, a rapt listener. And then there’s the fact that our grotesquely undervalued little girl has secret powers, including the ability to make a very sad story up on the spot.

These are potent ingredients for Dennis Kelly’s supple book and Australian composer Tim Minchkin’s clever music and lyrics. They transform Dahl’s wishful parable into a Billy Elliot-like saga of very sung heroism, invigorated by the powerful payback of unfettered imagination. This enormous production in Thousand Oaks is wonderfully shape-shifted by Lewis Wilkenfeld, embellished with Stephen Gifford’s pop-up sets, illuminated by Jose Santiago’s sharp, driven colors; and pile-driven home by Heather Castillo’s aggressive choreography. The breakout dances by these clever youngters (“When I Grow Up” or “Revolting Children”) explode with angry aggression. But so does much of the show; it’s a bit icy, which I love, but does slow the show down at times.

Matilda works best as it wittily skewers the idiotic Wormwood parents and Trunchbull, a Trump-like tyrant almost too evil to be real as she calls children “maggots” and worse. (She can turn physical-education exercises into propagandistic brainwashing, knowing that “You have to stay inside the circle all the time.”)

What astounds here is Olivia Marcum — there’s a daughterlode of emotional honesty and incandescent realism in her mercurial Matilda. (She alternates the killer role with Lucy Bollier). Among the nasty grownups, James Larsen and Janna Cardia are cartoon-thin but fully developed as Matilda’s imbecilic progenitors (Mrs. Wormwood’s gaudy, indefatigable, ego- and hip-driven dancing partner, Rudolpho, is a hilarious John Paul Batista). Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper incarnates every bogeyman under the bed as the mannish monstrosity Trunchbull, a principal without principle who’s repeatedly detonated by “The Smell of Rebellion.” But I couldn’t take my eyes off the goofy, dumbed-down brother of Matilda; as played by the Nick McKenna, his idiocy made perfect sense. A frightening kid. A brilliant performance.

In cunning contrast, Katie DeShan sings like a saint (“This Little Girl,” “My House) as she dreams of becoming the mother Matilda deserves, while Deanna Anthony is yet another maternal marvel as Mrs. Phelps, a life-affirming booklover — here, Ms. Anthony acts like a true friend, which is lovely. Among the rug rats, Marcello Silva has fun as a large lad named Bruce who eats an entire cake just to spite the terrible Trunchbull. In the musical’s subplot, where Matilda spins a tale, Ben Carroll and Monica Ricketts play pivotal roles as the dream-like Escape Artist and Acrobat.

A problem that plagued the national tour — badly miked heavy British accents — is mostly taken care of here, thanks to Sound Designer Jonathan Burke. There are still some ensemble numbers — especially those with the older school kids — that are somewhat indecipherable.

But 5-Star pulls off a tough show very well — one of their best, really. Young audiences will revel over the dazzling performances and pumped-up musical arrangements (Jennifer Lin is a powerhouse conducting the live orchestra), while older attendees will recognize the tale’s important message about becoming the hero of our own story. Just like the drama’s heroine, Matilda is extraordinary, magical and worthy of special attention. Yet it is a sparkling young thespian named Olivia Marcum as Matilda who truly steals the show.

photos by Ed Krieger

Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical
5-Star Theatricals
(formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre)
Kavli Theatre,
Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
ends on March 31, 2019
for tickets, call 800.745.3000
or visit 5-Star

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