By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
It seems children’s writer Roald Dahl and his dark prose will never go out of fashion. More than 30 years after his death, the genius behind tales about an improbable flying car, a wondrous chocolate factory and a giant traveling peach continues to score success with children and their parents. There is no doubt the most produced of recent works based on his writing is Matilda the Musical.
Based on his story of a special little girl with a love of reading who defies a sadistic teacher and her self-absorbed parents, “Matilda” first achieved success as a Danny Devito-directed movie in 1996. The popularity of the film led to the creation of the musical by Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) and Dennis Kelly (book) more than a decade ago. It made sense for Matilda the Musical to bow first across the pond on the West End, where it won a slew of Olivier Awards including Best New Musical and both Best Actor and Best Actress in a Musical honors.
It did not fare as well competitively when it opened on Broadway, winning one acting category, Best Book and three technical Tony Awards. The four young ladies who played Matilda were each awarded a special Tony Honors for Excellence Award later in 2013. But the biggest awards Matilda the Musical reaped were at the box office, where it ran on Broadway for 1,555 performances, finally closing in 2017.
Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts is the most recent production company to stage Matilda the Musical, following the regional premiere here in 2019 at Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane and several productions which have since followed on the Northshore. It would seem that this pint-sized heroine has been very popular with kids, their parents and their grandparents alike. However, Rivertown also sports the most ambitious production, double-casting the children’s roles as well as that of Miss Honey, who works with many of the kids’ scenes.
Of course, this makes directing a double duty for Kelly Fouchi, who also serves as Rivertown’s co-artistic director and producer. But this is an obvious labor of love. An experienced and capable choreographer herself, she enlisted the services of Katelin Zelon to do the heavy lifting of choreography on this show. There are so many moving parts that it absolutely took a village to pull this monumental feat together.
But as good as the direction is, the talent of the kids is what makes this production shine. The critical title role of Matilda Wormwood is played by two children, Blake Bosley, who performed the night of this review, and Sara Turnipseed on alternate nights and matinees.
Likewise, Miss Honey, the teacher with a heart who embraces the genius and recognizes Matilda’s special talents, is also double cast with Candace Moses playing the role opposite Bosley and Nicole Miller playing opposite Turnipseed.
The despicable, sadistic school principal, Agatha Trunchbull is played by Destin Bass. The role has always been played by a man, starting with Bertie Carvel, who originated the role famously in 2010 and played the domineering villain to great success on the West End – he received an Olivier Award – and a Tony nomination after it transferred to Broadway. Bass is very heavy handed as Trunchbull, a character with no redeeming features.
Nick Giardina does an exceptional job playing Matilda’s self-absorbed and flamboyant Cockney father. His big number is Act Two’s opener “All I Know,” in which he trumpets the marvelous invention of “telly,” the equivalent of “lots of books.” The music is a throwback to the skiffle music popular in London music halls in the 1950s and is a charming occasion for Giardina to play opposite Savannah Chiasson, who plays deadpan character Michael Wormwood.
As Matilda’s mother, Chelsea Gidden is also well cast. Her big number comes in Act One where she sings all the advantages of being “Loud.”
Karl Harrod handles the musical direction quite adroitly, which was, appropriately, loud when it needed to be and supportive of the children’s cast, whose voices needed to be heard in unison on songs like “Bruce” and “Revolting Children.” The challenge of rendering good sound design was more than met by Kage Laney. Another shout out goes to Cristina “Cuba” Hatheway, who is listed as the dialect coach. The children sang convincingly as a school full of British kids should and they delivered with proper pronunciation.
Marc Fouchi, Kelly’s husband also did a bit of double dipping on the show, playing the Escapologist and Doctor, but also handling the important video and special illusion design work on the show. He plays opposite Kirsten Bazet as the Acrobat. Garrin Mesa is used for comic relief as Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood’s Latin dance partner, who is accepted as just another member of the Wormwood clan.
Supporting cast members include Brittany Martin, as librarian Mrs. Phelps and Barry Acosta as Sergei, a Russian mobster who has a run-in with Mr. Wormwood. Both roles are small, but serve important aspects of the musical’s book.
This production of Matilda the Musical is endearing and carries with it a moral and message. The resolution of the children’s plight from Trunchbull and her cruel punishments like “Chokey” and flinging young girls by their pigtails as one would an Olympic hammer is worth waiting for. It is the upside to much of the darkness found in many of Dahl’s writings.
One of the most amazing aspects of the production is the superb set design by Cliff Price with Stephen Thurber on lighting and other technical aspects. The set is complemented by superb scenic art rendered by Spencer Peterson and props by co-artistic director Gary Rucker.
Costumes are also top notch by designers Deann Sullivan and Heidi Girardot. Kaci Thomasie provided additional designs. Laurin Hart was in charge of wig designs.
Matilda the Musical continues playing at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street, in Kenner, Louisiana from now through May 22. Shows on Friday and Saturday nights are at 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 p.m. For tickets click here. For more information, call 504-461-9475.