“Matilda,” Roald Dahl’s perennially popular children’s book, will likely be familiar to most generations of readers and theatergoers. Olney Theatre Center’s impressive new staging of “Matilda: The Musical” perfectly captures the beloved story’s wit, warmth and whimsy.
The curtain rises not on the main character, but on a set of obnoxiously beloved children. The book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin nicely amplify Dahl’s signature dry humor. “My mummy says I’m a miracle /One look at my face, and it’s plain to see/ Ever since the day doc chopped the umbilical cord /It’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me!” sing a parade of smiling kiddos, beaming under the eyes of a fleet of proud parents. The funny, crowd-pleasing opener slides into a darker key as Matilda (Emiko Dunn) enters, alone. “My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm/ My daddy says I’m a bore,” she sings, in sad contrast to her peers.
Introduced during the opening act, Matilda’s parents, the Wormwoods, are appropriately horrendous. Her sleazy, dishonest car-salesman father (Christopher Michael Richardson) is perfectly matched with her loud, aspiring ballroom-dancer mother (Tracy Lynn Olivera). Both are baffled by Matilda’s love of reading, and the whole family is depicted as anti-intellectual TV-lovers (a favorite target of Roald Dahl’s novels). Matilda finds solace in books, storytelling, and eventually, her teacher, the wonderful Miss Honey (Felicia Curry). Together, they must face the wrath of Matilda’s ultimate foe, Miss Trunchbull (Tom Story), the school’s child-hating headmistress.
Emiko Dunn is feisty and fierce as Matilda. After a fight with her father, she punches and kicks the air during a performance of “Naughty,” a power anthem to fighting back. “Just because you find that life’s not fair it/ Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it,” she claims. Dunn’s performance nicely expresses the character’s intelligence, belief in justice, as well as her fundamental loneliness.
Olney Theatre Center’s impressive new staging of ‘Matilda: The Musical’ perfectly captures the beloved story’s wit, warmth and whimsy.
That loneliness is softened by the introduction of Miss Honey, Matilda’s first-grade teacher. Played with endearing warmth by Felicia Curry, this favorite teacher faces her own family issues in the form of the Trunchbull, who is also her aunt. Tom Story plays the iconic part in drag, with a delicious camp style. Contrasting with Miss Honey’s love of her students, Miss Trunchbull bluntly voices her belief that “children are maggots.”
The company’s design team helps to make the production shine. Milagros Ponce de León’s set design creates a world of books and bookshelves for Matilda’s stories to play out against. Clint Allen’s charmingly clever projection design transforms the set into a sketched storybook while Matilda spins her tales, aided by Nancy Schertler’s dynamic lighting design.
Director Peter Flynn (recently of Ford’s Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods”) keeps the energy high throughout the show, with a second Act beginning with Mr. Wormwood’s “All I Know,” a love song to television itself. Christopher Michael Richardson and Tracy Lynn Olivera as the Wormwood parents turn in outsize comic performances. Olivera’s performance of “Loud,” accompanied by her dance partner, Rudolpho (the high-kicking, hilarious Andre Hinds), is a comic highpoint of the show. Pei Lee’s stylized costuming underwrites character creation, especially Olivera’s orange and purple plaid suit, and Mrs. Wormwood’s animal print dresses.
The excitement stays high in a full second half that involves a fomenting student rebellion, Matilda’s developing supernatural powers, as well as a potential murder mystery. And the Russian mafia, of course.
It all comes right in the end. It’s an appropriately magical ending to a show that will appeal to bookworms and theatre-lovers of all ages.
Running Time: About two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Parental guidance suggested.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical” runs through July 21 at Olney Theatre Center. For tickets or more information, click here.