In “Matilda the Musical,” which waltzed into the Wharton Center earlier this week, a young girl wages a war against illiteracy, ignorance and bullying. That character is Matilda, and her eponymous musical is a weird, wonky and wonderful celebration of knowledge and creativity. The show is also a spiritually faithful adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl book. Fortunately, loving — or even knowing — the book is not a prerequisite to loving this show.
For the uninitiated, Matilda Wormwood — played Wednesday night by Savannah Grace Elmer — is a 5-year-old Wunderkind born to unloving and genuinely crooked parents. (The part is played in rotation by two other actresses, Sarah McKinley Austin and Lily Brooks O’Briant.) By her first day of school, she’s already read multiple works of Dickens and other classic books in multiple languages. Immediately recognized for her brilliance by her teacher — and soon-to-be soul mate — Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), Matilda must first bring down the authoritarian regime of headmistress Miss Trunchbull (David Abeles) using wit, courage and some special skills.
Elmer brings a razor sharp straight face and perfectly timed beats to Matilda, while still maintaining a casual air. She’s no Hermione Granger, she’s just a normal kid with an abnormally high IQ who wants to be loved. As the delightful Miss Honey, Blood gives that love and adoration to Matilda with wide eyed wonder. Her kinship with Matilda ground the show with an authentically warm heart. Apart from the children and the librarian (Ora Jones), the rest of the supporting cast are scheming villains who work to make Matilda’s life miserable at home and school.
Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva, respectively) are comically terrible narcissists who shower their couch potato son Michael (Danny Tieger) with praise while referring to Matilda as “boy.” Mr. Wormwood is a sleazy used car salesman — well, more like a dimwitted conman posing as a salesman. Mrs. Wormwood, who lives by the mantra “looks are more important than books,” escapes daily into her ballroom dance lessons with Rudolpho (Eric Craig). Both Mattfeld and Silva are deliciously despicable, but Silva — who also played the role on Broadway — gets to show off her dancing skills in the show-stopping Latin number, “Loud.”
But the real Voldemort to Matilda’s Harry Potter is Miss Trunchbull. Towering over the children, Abeles looks like a Soviet era mutant who was taught proper English manners. Quoting the school motto, “children are maggots,” and later singing her belief that “to teach the child, we must first break the student,” Miss Trunchbull is a distorted personification of corrupt and malevolent authority. Abeles is hypnotically good, calculated and refined in his delivery, only yelling for precise effect. His performance is perfectly calibrated to bring fear and awe to Matilda’s world.
For their part, the rest of the supporting cast of children are more than just Trunchbull hammer fodder. They are precocious, adorable and witty, and they absolutely own songs like “Revolting Children” with childlike glee.
Technical elements — including Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design and Rob Howell’s set design — not only complete Matilda’s world, they also reflect her imaginative worldview, which seamlessly transitions between fantasy scenes and grim reality.
If you like your Broadway musicals bright and cheery with no social commentary, this show is not for you. But if you are looking for an irreverent, witty satire of rule bound education that’s filled with catchy songs and that’s accessible for children and adults alike, “Matilda” is a goldmine.
“Matilda the Musical”
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20-Thursday, April 21; 8 p.m. Friday, April 22; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 24
Tickets start at $38/$25 students
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com