PAYSON — When the Broadway adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s classic novel Matilda burst onto the scene in 2013 it made quite the splash both in the U.S. and on the London stage. In many ways it became this generation’s Annie—a musical with lots of children, including the lead, with its big belty numbers and a positive family message to take home in the end. My friend who teaches voice lessons says the songs from Matilda are the go-to for young performers and particularly for auditions, and I can see why. Now we have the latest production of this lively musical at the Payson Community Theatre, and it is outstanding—one of the best shows I’ve seen in Utah by a community theater in 2022.
If you don’t know, Matilda tells the story of a genius little girl who is born into a family that hates her, and as a result she turns to books for companionship and inspiration. Her bright mind is challenged when she begins school and is confronted with her beastly headmistress Miss Trunchbull. The music and lyrics are written by Tim Minchin with a book by Dennis Kelly.
In the program, PCT’s director M Chase Grant promises that the audience will, “embark on an evening of live storytelling,” and that’s what he delivers. To begin with, the casting is all top-rate. The complete cast is massive with thirty children (kid and big kid) in the ensemble and eight adult ensemble members with two dozen named cast-members. Managing such a large cast is an incredible task for Grant, his stage manager Shaelyn Hayward, costume designer Miranda Mobbs, hair and makeup Julie Hancock, and choreographer Emma Black. I love when a production uses the entire stage spilling out into the aisles of the auditorium, and that’s what they do at PCT. It creates many memorable moments particularly with all the energetic numbers at the school.
Lecksa Joel is perfectly cast as Matilda, and while she’s in nearly every scene of the musical, she rarely misses a beat with her performance. There was one spot where she forgot her lines but she paused, collected herself, and the line came. That’s how the pros do it (these things even happen on Broadway after all).
I also loved Mr and Mrs Wormwood played by Michael Hess and Black respectively. Hess is hilarious as Matilda’s over-confident father and he had me cracking up with his song, “All I Know.” You can tell Black is also the choreographer of the show, because her dancing and singing is excellent with her number, “Loud.” Her hair was also big and so much fun.
One fun element to this production is they cast a real life married couple, Katelynn Blair and Ethan Blair, as Miss Honey and Trunchbull. They were both fantastic in their performances, but I got a chuckle thinking about what rehearsal must have been like for them at home reciting their angry lines to each other. But regardless of this fun detail, I loved both of their work. The highlight for Trunchbull is probably the opening song, “The Hammer,” and for Miss Honey, “My House,” towards the end.
It might sound like hyperbole, but the set design by Perry Ewell was professional-level quality. Not only were there a lot of complicated sets, but they were also moved on and off the stage seamlessly. The school and playground sets were particularly impressive (they had the desks all connected to each other so they could move them out with ease). The Wormwoods’ house, Miss Honey’s house, the car dealership, and library were all well done.
There is also a special effect at the end when words appear on a chalkboard. I’m still not entirely sure how they that pulled off. It must be a screen, but it didn’t look like a screen. It looked like a chalkboard!
As far as any critiques, I think the show is a bit over-long. At 2 hours 40 minutes, it drags in spots, especially the sections with Matilda telling the fairytale. They don’t fit with the tone of the rest of the musical and slow the momentum of the story. But I did like how PCT used shadow puppets during those segments, so they made it work in the best way they could.
There were also some buggy microphone issues particularly in the first act, but they were mostly able to get those figured out. I’m sure the more they perform, the more those kind of issues will be ironed out.
That said, I was especially impressed with PCT’s production of Matilda. I’ve seen it done by pretty big theaters here in Utah but never at this quality. Congrats to the cast and crew for making something truly special, and I hope they find a large audience. They deserve it.