‘Matilda’ Probably Unlike Any Other Musical You Have Ever Seen

Very British, Very Weird, Very Wonderful
By RICK MELLERUP | Aug 13, 2019
Courtesy of: Studio 63

Beach Haven — If you don’t think live theater can be magical, then go see “Matilda” at Surflight Theatre and think again.

The musical, which will run through Aug. 25, is completely different than anything previously done at Surflight this summer. The theater’s previous mainstage shows – “Holiday Inn,” “Flashdance” and “Mamma Mia!” – were either based on or followed by popular musical movies. A 1996 film version of “Matilda” wasn’t a musical and it was a box office bomb, meaning many people aren’t familiar with the show at all.

That’s still rather surprising considering the show was a critically acclaimed hit on both London’s West End and Broadway, where it ran for 1,555 performances.

The show, at first, may be jarring to some American audiences because although I’ve attended many a British import, “Matilda” is the most British show I’ve ever seen.

First, it is based on the British author Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel. Dahl’s books have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide yet he is still somewhat of an acquired taste. His children’s books, which include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches, are generally macabre and darkly comic.

Second, it was developed by the Royal Shakespeare Co. You can’t get more British than the RSC, as anybody who ever saw its 8 ½-hour production (a matinee and evening performance or two trips to the theater) of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” can attest.

Third, the show’s plot revolves around a 5-year-old girl, Matilda Wormwood (Annie Shea Caravella), who is precocious to the max and, as her name suggests, a bookworm of the first degree. She clashes with her parents, Mr. Wormwood (Logan Farine), who much prefers the boob tube to books, and Mrs. Wormwood (Allison Foote), who much prefers her ballroom dancing partner Rudolpho (John Guaragna) to her husband. They put her down constantly. Indeed, Mr. Wormwood, who wanted a son, constantly calls his daughter “boy.”

Her biggest obstacle in life, though, is her school’s headmistress, Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Chris Blem – that’s right, a female being played by a male, how Shakespearean is that?), a bully of a woman who tortures kids by putting them in the “Chokey,” a small closet lined with sharp objects, or, in one case, forcing one student, Bruce (Benjamin Barham-Wiese) to eat a huge chocolate cake in one sitting because he had stolen one slice. Trunchbull, who was England’s hammer-throwing champion in 1969, is a stickler on rules.

It is the show’s outlook on the English school system that makes “Matilda” so ultimately British. Based on class, with students’ lives being segregated at an early age, with some sent off to prestigious, if strict, boarding schools while others are relegated to the trades, the hatred of schools is a constant in British songs. “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teachers leave them kids alone!” sang Pink Floyd in “Another Brick in the Wall.” “They hurt you at home and they hit you at school, they hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool. ... When they’ve tortured you and scared you for twenty-odd years, then they expect you to pick a career, when you can’t really function you’re so full of fear,” wrote John Lennon in “Working Class Hero.”

The British school system affects almost everybody of all classes. Read a Winston Churchill biography and see how much he hated it; Dahl was caned by the headmaster of his elementary school for putting a dead mouse in a jar of candy at a local sweet shop.

Luckily Matilda has some friends, her poor-as-dirt teacher Miss Honey (Christa Steiner) and Mrs. Phelps (Helen Marla White), a librarian, who help her along her way.

Then there are her classmates. Her entire class, once cowed, eventually revolts, supporting a girl who loses a rigged spelling bee and is about to be sent to the Chokey; they deliberately misspell words and demand to be punished.

But it is Matilda, using her power of telekinesis, who eventually brings Trunchbull down.

Matilda, throughout the show, tells a story about an escapologist (Andrew Foote) and an acrobat (Kelsey Kaufman) who desperately want a child. When the acrobat finally becomes pregnant they want to cancel a performance, but her sister doesn’t want to return the money to a crowd that had assembled and produces a contract that shows the couple will go to jail if they don’t perform. So the show goes on, leading to a serious injury to the acrobat. She lives just long enough to give birth to a girl. The escapologist mysteriously disappears, leaving the girl to be raised by her evil aunt.

At the end of the show it turns out Matilda’s story is true, and everything is wrapped up into a neat package.

If it all sounds strange, well, it is. But damn if it doesn’t work! It takes a while to settle into the show, but once it grabs hold, it doesn’t let loose.

The Surflight production, directed by Karen Babcock Brassea, stays away from the temptation to Americanize the show. All performers speak with a British accent and do well enough that it doesn’t get in the way.

Neither do the many kids in the cast. Shows with a lot of children actors can sometimes turn into a “gee, aren’t they cute” spectacle, where you forget about characters and instead think “wow, how can somebody so young be that talented?” This production avoids that perilous pitfall.

That is especially true of Caravella’s Matilda. Her energy is infectious, her defiance is real, and her singing (and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics give her and the rest of the cast very much to work with) is spot on. But the most amazing thing is that while you’re enjoying the show, you’re not thinking of Caravella instead of Matilda, at least until curtain call. This young Manahawkin resident, I’m sure, hasn’t studied method, but she somehow fades into her character, the ultimate tribute you can pay to an actor.

Adults, too, turned in great performances. Talk about British, Blem’s Trunchbull and Farine’s Mr. Wormwood would have been right at home in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Matt Wolf, a British critic, wrote, “I was struck by the sight of many a child grinning openly as their adult companions were wiping away tears” when reviewing the original Royal Shakespeare Co. production. Well, there were children grinning and laughing in the Surflight audience, and I did indeed see some adults wiping away tears.

Sure, “Matilida” is weird. Yes, it takes a while to fall under its spell. But when you do, you won’t want to come out of it. Magic!

Tickets for “Matilda” are $39 for adults and $29 for children younger than 13. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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