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‘Matilda: The Musical’ a magical good time

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Ben Layman is the terrifying Miss Trunchbull in PTC's "Matilda: The Musical." Ben Layman is the terrifying Miss Trunchbull in PTC's "Matilda: The Musical." (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2019)

BANGOR – The power and importance of storytelling is springing to life at the Bangor Opera House this holiday season, courtesy of one very special little girl.

Penobscot Theatre Company has opened their production of “Matilda: The Musical,” based on the classic children’s story of the same name by Roald Dahl, with book by Dennis Kelly and music & lyrics by Tim Minchin. The PTC production – directed and choreographed by Jeff Payton and Matthew Shaffer with music direction by Phil Burns – runs through December 29.

It’s a huge undertaking for PTC, with a massive, kid-heavy cast and a significant logistical load on the production side. It’s the sort of show where the spectacle of the thing is an integral aspect of the proceedings; the bigness of it all is baked in. And thanks to some great performances and bold aesthetic choices, this huge undertaking is a successful one.

Young Matilda (Kate Walters) is an incredibly gifted girl, unbelievably precocious and fiercely intelligent. Alas, fate has seen fit to drop her into the Wormwood family, a group of people who are decidedly … less of all those things. Mr. Wormwood (Dominick Varney) is an oily used car salesman, as amoral and unethical as they come. Mrs. Wormwood (Christie Robinson) is vain and self-obsessed, concerned more with her amateur ballroom dancing competitions than with her family. And then there’s Michael (Claire Thompson), the dim-witted older brother whose very dim-wittedness is what makes him the family favorite.

Matilda’s only escape is to the library, where Mrs. Phelps (A.J. Mooney) not only helps her pick out the best books to read, but also serves as a willing audience to the wonderful stories that Matilda spins (including one that unfolds in interludes across the breadth of the show, a tale of triumph and tragedy featuring The Escapologist (John Siedenberg II) and The Acrobat (Hannah Perry)).

When the Wormwoods decide to send Matilda to school, she’s overjoyed … at first. It turns out that Crunchem Hall isn’t necessarily interested in providing the sort of education that Matilda seeks. The school’s headmistress is an angry former hammer-thrower by the name of Miss Trunchbull (Ben Layman), whose entire educational philosophy regarding children is that the world would be better off without them. Luckily, there’s one teacher – the soft-spoken Miss Honey (Brianne Beck) – who both recognizes Matilda’s gifts and wants to nurture them.

Matilda struggles to find a place for herself. Home is chaos, with her father trying to broker a massive (and sketchy) car deal with a mysterious Russian buyer; school is no better, with Miss Trunchbull’s unwavering vendetta against her presenting plenty of problems. All Matilda can do is use her brain to try and fix things, to stand up to the bullies in her life. Only it turns out, she can use that brain in some … unconventional ways.

Here’s the thing: “Matilda” is a massive undertaking. PTC has long been interested in leaning into the spectacle of their musical productions – doubly so when they’re the theatre’s holiday offering – but this show is big. Really big. Every aspect of the thing is huge, from the production values to the performances … and the fun.

Because “Matilda” is a LOT of fun. Even when the material veers into darker territory – standard operating procedure when you’re dealing with Roald Dahl – that sense of fun never disappears. Even the darkness is funny, which isn’t always easy to pull off. And a show like this needs that sense of humor to remain omnipresent, even in the shadows, to really resonate.

Credit Payton and Shaffer with understanding that and finding ways to elevate the proceedings so that even the more challenging moments are endowed with that same levity. There’s a breadth and a brightness to the movement of the show, to the almost balletic sense of many parts moving precisely when and where they are meant to. The big dance numbers are a delight – especially when the kids are unleashed at full-wattage adorableness – but even the transitions are fluid in an aesthetically pleasing way. There’s an underlying sense of well-executed timing that makes this show tick along delightfully.

The songs are a treat as well, with the band – Harry Burns on bass and guitar, Tom Libby on drums, Jeanne Pocius Dorismond on brass, Nathan Williams on reeds and music director Burns leading the way on keys – holding it down. Picking favorites is tough – I was partial to Matilda’s sweet and plaintive “Naughty,” the slapstick intensity of “The Smell of Rebellion” and the nigh-anarchic energy of “Revolting Children” myself, but there are another half-a-dozen or more solid tunes here.

And then there’s the cast. Oh, that cast. Walters is wonderful as the titular Matilda; she has a presence and stage awareness that belies her young age. Her ability to command the stage and bear the emotional weight of the narrative is impressive as heck. Oh, and she’s got a lovely voice to boot. Varney and Robinson are a dynamic duo, hurling themselves into their respective roles with wild abandon; they’re goofy as all get out, making even their malignancy funny to watch; meanwhile, Thompson makes Michael into a delightful dunce. Beck is the embodiment of everyone’s favorite teacher, radiating empathy and sweet insecurity. Mooney brings her usual excellence to her too-brief appearances as Mrs. Phelps; Siedenberg and Perry cut a sweet and striking picture as the Escapologist and Acrobat. And Ben Layman is exquisite as Mrs. Trunchbull; in his capable hands, Trunchbull is a brick house of gleeful malevolence and self-important bombast, an absolute unit.

And lest we forget – the rest of the ensemble, each of whom contributes mightily to the success of “Matilda.” Andrew Barrett, Robert Brangwynne, Stella Burns, Luka Bogolyubov, Emma Campbell, Axel Carson, Kate Fogg, Molly Hagerty, Matthew E. Madore, Rebeclyn Parker, Joey Rutledge, Thomas Sanders, Abby Scott, Cuthbert Steadman, Ava Syphers and Cameron Wright – each of them deserves mention for the work they do. Highlights include Wright’s dazzlingly-clad ballroom dancer Rodolpho, Madore’s red-suited turn as a disgruntled Russian and some big moments from Carson and Syphers, but really, everyone has a time to shine.

And shine they do, thanks to another tremendous showing from PTC’s production crew. The huge and incredibly flexible set comes courtesy of scenic designer Tricia Hobbs; it’s in almost constant motion, gliding from beat to beat. Lighting designer Scout Hough illustrates not only gifts for bold color choices, but a knack for using lights to hide things in plain sight. The two, as usual, make an excellent team. Costume designer Kevin Koski is always on point, but he absolutely crushes this one; there are a significant number of wildly memorable wardrobe moments here. The prop design (from Ben Wetzel and Belinda Hobbs) and sound design (courtesy Sean McGinley) are solidly on point as well.

“Matilda” is a story about what it means to be special, in ways both good and bad. It’s about standing up for yourself and fighting to be the person you believe yourself to be. It is funny and dark and adorable, a lovely addition to PTC’s tradition of top-quality holiday programming. There’s magic in all of us – you just need to know where to look.

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 December 2019 07:08

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