CENTERVILLE — CenterPoint Legacy Theatre has mounted the hit musical Matilda (with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and a book by Dennis Kelly based on the children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl). This musical adaptation was first produced on London’s West End in 2011 and gets a lovely production in Centerville.
Directed at CenterPoint by Emily Wadley, Matilda takes its audience into the world of Matilda Wormwood (played by Charlotte Witt), who was born to parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (played by Caydin Bell and Jaycee Harris), who want nothing to do with her and treat her quite poorly. Eventually she is sent to school where she finds a wonderful teacher in Miss Honey (played by Amanda Frisby) and a horrible head mistress (played delightfully in this production by J. R. Moore).
Audiences either love the musical version of Matilda or do not enjoy it. Very few people feel ambiguous about it. For many, the musical is admittedly quite dark for a children’s show. For me, though, this is what makes it more special, and I am impressed especially with the directions that Wadley and her creative team took with this theme in the creation of set, lighting, and music design.
Truxton Moulton‘s set design for this production looked like it was almost out of a haunted house, yet with hints of its storybook origins. The set combined with truly imaginative lighting design by Collin Schmierer and the really great music of Minchin resulted in some absolutely fabulous moments. For instance, as the young children start to arrive outside the school, they sing about their hopes for the school year and becoming the teachers pet in the delicious “School Song,” but the older kids suddenly appear at a gate that looks like it came out of a horror movie and quickly help the kids understand what environment the school really is. The lighting changes at the same time as the music, and both emphasize the choreography of Liz Christensen to make this one of my favorite renditions of “School Song.”
The musical and original novel versions of Matilda differ greatly from the 1996 movie, and the key to understanding the stage version is that the characters are responding to the traumas they have experienced. As Miss Honey, Frisby understood this well, and her number of “My House” brought me to open sobbing. Miss Honey spends most of the story struggling to stand up to her trauma of Miss Trunchbull, the picture of evil played so well by Moore. Matilda, who has spent her whole life being devalued at home (the one place that a child should be safe), responds differently by not being afraid of anything. The audience learns about this reaction in the song “Naughty.” Witt has a great voice and fantastic diction, but I wish she had been directed to be even more brave. The whole reason Matilda is such a compelling character is that the Trunchbull never intimidates her, and that Matilda why she can be her downfall.
Moore was delightful as can be. From the delivery of the song “Hammer,” to the mannerisms that portrayed his absolute disdain of children, to almost every choice he made, I was mesmerized by his Trunchbull. Additionally, Bell and Harris were forceful in their performances as the Wormwood parents. The opening of act two (“Telly”) has always been a favorite, and Bell certainly delivered.
Where Matilda was perhaps too afraid of the Trunchbull, I felt some of the other younger children were not quite afraid enough. However, while the older children did an impeccable job of showing just how terrifying Trunchbull could be, and Trunchbull lived up to that reputation, the chorus of younger children did not seem to have enough direction to reciprocate that fear.
Vocally, the show was stellar, with music direction from Tara Wardle. A great standout vocally was Nixon Keddington in the role of Bruce Bogtrotter. Keddington’s beginning solo in “Revolting Children” echoed through the rafters and might have been able to bring down the house. “Revolting Children” was another song (like “School Song”) that unified all the design elements together and had such fun choreography that I am surprised that the audience was not dancing at the liberation of abuse.
The biggest complaint of Matilda being too dark ignores the fact that so many children in fact have lived in darkness and deserve to have heroes that fight for them. Some kids deserve the right to be a little bit naughty. In my day job as a therapist shows like Matilda remind me that healing is possible, and a community theater is the best place for some people to experience that. CenterPoint’s Matilda is a wonderful show that teaches the importance of healing from trauma — and it entertains its audience, too. I love that Utah has such a strong community for the arts and healing.