Despite the fact that our technology shrinks the world and seems to have taken precedence over everything, there is still such joy and value in a great book. It’s a romantic notion, you know – a blanket, hot chocolate, and the solitude that comes from reading. A skilled writer paints a picture with words, freeing the reader’s mind to create what these pictures may look like. There is still so much power in the written word, an art form that used to come with things like multiple book stores in every corner of the city and local libraries where books of all shapes and sizes are the stars of the show, not the endless computer labs and their Wi-Fi capabilities.
The world of books is where adorable 5-year-old wunderkind Matilda Wormwood spends her time. When she is not reading a book and fantasizing about its contents, she’s spinning a tale for local librarian Mrs. Phelps, who sits and listens with raptured wonder. Matilda tells her the story of a famous acrobat and escapologist couple that has desire but is unable to conceive a child.
SHNSF’s vivid and vivacious production of “Matilda, the Musical” has its moments that left something to be desired. But more often than not, the show boasts a ferocity, namely amongst its extremely young performers that carry the show with command and professionalism. The music from composer and lyricist Tim Minchin, the sharp direction from Matthew Warchus and choreography from Peter Darling brings a lot of great aspects of the story to life. It is a technical wonder, led by Simon Baker’s nifty sound design, Hugh Vanstone’s magnificent lighting design, and Rob Howell’s inventive costume and set design.
The story itself comes from Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book of the same name. In this production, it is plenty dark and, in some moments, maybe a bit scary for the kids. Matilda (On this evening, played by Mabel Tyler) is a curious and precocious five-year-old whose love of books is in stark contrast to her father’s love of television and her mother’s love of dancing. Oh, and of course, their total lack of love for her, with pops only realizing way later that she’s not a boy. Her father, used car salesman Mr. Wormwood (an effectively smarmy Quinn Mattfeld) is much more concerned about his loss of a crappy fleet of cars to some rich Russians. And Mrs. Wormwood (the funny, cartoonish ditz Cassie Silva) prances around the stage searching and preparing for her next big ballroom dance competition.
Matilda finds her acceptance and salvation at Crunchem Hall Primary through her lovely teacher Miss Honey (warmly portrayed by Jennifer Blood). She does not find that same salvation in the school’s headmistress Miss Trunchbull (physical and comic marvel Bryce Ryness), a woman who sits and studies the hammer throw with razor sharp focus.
While the diction of the lyrics, many of those of the rapid-fire persuasion, were sometimes hard to follow, there is still such a joy in watching performers so young absolutely master such a stage. In shows that feature children, kids can be used as cute commodities, such as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” or “The King and I,” or have to be overly bubbly, such as “Annie.” The popular musical with the sunny little orphan is something that is on the mind a bit because that show’s national tour came through San Francisco very recently.
In “Matilda,” kids bring it, and bring it hard. There was adorable Lavender, played with joyful, adorable glee by Kaci Walfall. Plenty of physical humor was brought by Evan Gray, portraying cake boss Bruce Bogtrotter. And Amanda, played by Kayla Amistad, found herself as the hammer in Trunchbull’s reliving of Olympic glory in a bit that featured some nifty staging and lighting.
Much of the music is a combination of dark, joyous, witty and exceptionally poignant. There are some of the production numbers are just flat out brilliant. Whether it is the superb number “Loud,” with its rumba-infused rhythms, Miss Honey’s introspective “This Little Girl,” or Trunchbull’s rhythm gymnastics laughter-inducing number “The Hammer,” the music does well to fuse a variety of styles.
“Matilda” is so appealing because it teaches something that kids don’t always learn nowadays, in our schools that emphasize the imagination less and less as a child goes to higher and higher grades. The imagination, and the ability to find magic and exceptionalism within oneself, should always be of the utmost importance. As Matilda showed, that ability will carry you far when your dad just wants to watch television and avoid Russians who buy crappy cars.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Shorenstein Hayes Nederlander of San Francisco (SHNSF) presents “Matilda, the Musical.”
Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Dennis Kelly
Based on the book “Matilda” by Roald Dahl
The Word: The kids in the show are all certainly solid in this fun production.
Stars: 4 out of 5
July 15th – Aug. 15th
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco, CA
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $45 – $210
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com