SANDY — Arriving for its Northern Utah regional debut and accompanied by a considerable amount of fanfare, London import “Matilda” debuted at Hale Center Theatre and, in many respects, lived up to the hype Monday night.
Central to this fun house fairy tale — equal parts macabre and campy, magical and endearing — are dozens of talented children, who, led by Lucy White (M/W/F) as Matilda Wormwood, join the insurrection against a tyrannical headmistresses, self-absorbed parents and a world devoid of imagination.
White, charged with carrying the show in the role, proved with panache the words she sang: “Even if you're little, you can do a lot,” enchanting the audience as the sweet little genius who chooses knowledge, trickery and even a bit of magic as her weapons of war.
Director David Tinney wove a unique interpretation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 classic children’s novel, most notably during the opening number, entitled “Miracle,” in which the children sang about their one-in-a-million specialness as they pranced around rottenly, wearing costumes and indulging in sweets — demanding they be seen, heard and adored.
Parents, dressed in 1980s sportswear, resembled moving mannequins, talked on their bulky cellphones and snapped photographs on cue as if being maneuvered by imaginary strings. Adulthood is satirized at every turn in "Matilda," and in this case, the message is that most parents think their child is unnaturally gifted and talented.
Although the musical takes place in Dahl’s pre-social media world, one can easily draw modern-day parallels if only to think on a typical parent’s Facebook page.
This hilarious helicopter-parent parade provided a juicy contrast to Matilda’s negligent upbringing by the horrible Mrs. and Mr. Wormwood, who see their daughter as nothing but a nuisance. Some of comedian/songwriter/lyricist Tim Minchin’s priceless nuggets can be found in this opener. When the children sang “My mommy says I’m a miracle,” a head-scratching spectator alternately sang, “Is it some modern miracle of calculus, that such frequent miracles don't render each one un-miraculous?”
Unfortunately for Monday's opening night, playful lyrics like this one, as well as a great deal of the show's powerfully funny or irreverent lines, were executed with such a heavy British accent or in such rapid-fire succession (or both) as to be rendered nearly inaudible.
Sound, apparently, remains one of the greatest hurdles for “Matilda” productions. (Other productions have had similar problems.) HCT seemed, at least, to be self-aware of how easily Minchin’s great many words packed so tightly into a song can become jumbled, especially when sung in a child’s range and backed by instrumentation. So, while the production, thankfully, never sounded shrill (as was the case in another production I recently witnessed), it was just plain difficult to decipher one syllable from the next in many of the songs.
On a brighter note, the message of "Matilda” never got lost, even if a few of its hilarious lyrics did. Even though it takes on a serious issue — in this case child neglect and even abuse — it does so with a lighthearted touch. Not in a kid-gloves kind of way, but in a comedic way, with a hope-infused, laugh-filled message despite kids being locked in closets, pulled by their hair, force-fed and denied a proper education. Matilda’s parents call her "stupid" and "good-for-nothing," and yet the headmistress and the parents are such hyperbolic caricatures that it resonated without being depressing or heavy-handed.
Most of the grown-ups in Matilda’s story play their deliciously evil roles with relish, including Aaron Ford (M/W/F) as the horrifying headmistress Miss Agatha Trunchbull; Ryan Simmons (M/W/F) as slimy car salesman Mr. Wormwood; and Amelia Rose Moore (M/W/F) as the self-centered salsa-dancing Mrs. Wormwood. Matilda’s big-hearted teacher Miss Honey is tasked with a kindly, but more complex role.
Played tenderly by Bre Welch (M/W/F), Miss Honey has become broken by her own abusive bully and developed a fearful determination that her young student be spared the same fate. It’s a bit dark for a children’s tale, but then Dahl never claimed to be Disney.
During the moving second-half opener, "When I Grow Up," we saw the depth of Dahl’s message, which speaks to not just childhood fears, but the deep cracks of disappointment in grown-ups. The song's duet between White and Welch (who, according to the playbill biography, are niece and aunt) was exquisitely moving and insightful, the protective love between teacher and child evident in their rendition.
Also spectacular were the set designs, artwork and projections on the screens encircling the theater, all re-imagined for the theatre-in-the-round by Kacey Udy and Madeline Ashton (sets), Josh Roberts (lighting) and Bobby Gibson (projections). Memorable set pieces that descended from above included a chain-link cage with ladders during “School Song,” a starlit sky during “Quiet” and, most brilliantly, bunches of floating balloons from which hung seats on various levels, elevating the children who sat on them up toward the sky during the very moving number, “When I Grow Up.”Comment on this story
Despite the sound-mixing bumps, HCT’s "Matilda" Monday-night audience didn't seem to mind. Nearly all present rose to their feet in an approving final ovation —including those who could be heard during intermission complaining openly about the sound. In the end, the message that children, genius or not, are indeed uniquely exceptional, and deserve a good garden in which to grow, ultimately prevailed.
Content advisory: While "Matilda" contains a few scary moments, the show is suitable for all ages.