SPANISH FORK — Every year, Spanish Fork Community Theater times their big musical to coincide with Fiesta Days, the city’s annual multiday celebration of its history and heritage. It is smart planning: at a time when civic pride is high and people are getting out of the house, it makes sense to invite the community to enjoy the talents of Spanish Fork’s citizens. This year’s production, Matilda the Musical, is a community effort that sports a large cast and plenty of heart.
Adapted from the 1988 novel by Roald Dahl, Matilda the Musical tells the story of a precocious girl who is unloved and neglected by her parents. Matilda attends a local school run by the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull, who delights in heartlessly punishing children. The only bright spot in Matilda’s life is her teacher, Miss Honey. Gradually, Matilda learns to stand up to Miss Trunchbull and exact revenge.
Matilda the Musical is an ambitious choice for an amateur group. The score (by Tim Minchin) is modern, and the script (by Dennis Kelly) often blurs the line between fantasy and reality (and contains lengthy digressions from the main action). Adding to the challenge is the large cast of 85, many of whom are children and teenagers. Director Cami Jensen certainly had her work cut out for her. Jensen’s direction was best in the home scenes, and it was abundantly clear that Matilda’s parents (played by Benjamin Wear and Chelsea Kennedy) had only disdain for her. However, the slow motion during “Quiet” (as Matilda sings upstage) distracted from the song, and Jensen’s direction never made the nature of Matilda’s telekinetic powers clear.
As Matilda, Emma Berglind is a cute lead. She clearly enjoys singing “Naughty,” and she shares some tender moments with Mrs. Phelps (the librarian, played by Brooklyn Tanner) and Matilda’s teacher. Tanner is one of the best performers in the cast. Her intense interest in Matilda’s story gave the scenes a sense of importance. As Miss Honey (Matilda’s teacher), Kaylee Hepburn gives the production’s most emotional performance, especially with her melancholic rendition of “When I Grow Up” and sweet performance in “Pathetic.” The self-sacrificing teacher is a tired cliché, but Hepburn manages to give her character a little bit of depth.
Aside from Matilda, Mrs. Phelps, and Miss Honey, the characters in Matilda the Musical are either caricatures or blandly flat. Playing either type of character is a challenge for non-professional actors, and the performers in Spanish Fork varied in their success. Kennedy has the zany pizzaz needed to make “Loud” one of the best numbers of the show. Wear is fun in “Telly,” though I had trouble deciding whether his character, Mr. Wormwood, was indifferent or cruel towards Matilda. Another cartoony figure is the play’s antagonist, Miss Agatha Trunchbull, played by Jessica Champneys. The role is usually played by a man, but that does not deter Jessica Champneys from giving a truly malevolent performance. She established Trunchbull’s sadism in the first scene and did not let up for the entire evening. Jessica Champneys is particularly impressive running, skipping, and occasionally dancing in her 5-inch platforms on the bottom of her shoes. A lesser performer would have tripped at some point, but she seemed comfortable in such unwieldy footwear.
Almost as cumbersome as Jessica Champney’s shoes were the many group scenes in Matilda the Musical. To handle the dozens of bodies often on stage at the same time, choreographer Bethany Taylor kept the dancing simple. A step-touch here and a turn there are not going to wow anybody, but in a production where much of the cast is likely on stage for the first time, some conservative choreography is in order. The group songs suffered from poor diction, and I wished music director Leni Thomson had improved this aspect of the singing in “Bruce,” “When I Grow Up,” and “Revolting Children.”
The most impressive technical element of Matilda the Musical is the projections, especially the animations by Jessica Champneys, Matt Champneys, and Kayli Champneys. These animations helped tell the story of the escapologist and the acrobat and also served provided a vivid demonstration of Matilda’s telekinetic powers. Lawson Bendall‘s set design was an asset to the production, and I loved the midcentury modern touches to the Wormwood home, such as the angles on the flats and the color scheme in the living room.
Overall, Matilda the Musical has many of the rough edges that people expect from community theatre. It is still a noble effort that deserves the support of the friends and family of the cast. My last four reviews were for plays that are seen too often in Utah County. Matilda the Musical has not yet warn out its welcome, and it is nice to see an amateur group take on this challenging play. I am glad I attended with my 7-year-old daughter, who was enthralled by seeing children her age on stage.