“Matilda the Musical” is a holiday triumph for the Penobscot Theatre Company.
It is a funny, frightful and rewarding story about a victory of kindness over meanness revealed through a young girl and a couple of good grownups, despite the machinations of a few despicable adults.
The show, based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, tells the story of a gifted English schoolgirl whose parents malign her intelligence and who runs afoul of a malicious headmistress. The musical, with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, premiered on Broadway six year ago and won five Tony awards.
Directing team Jeff Payton and Matthew Shaffer have molded the 25-member cast, which includes 10 children, into one of the tightest, most effective ensembles ever to perform on the Bangor Opera House stage. They also manage to get them all to sound like they live in the same English village.
The performers, ranging in age from 9 to their middle years, work together like a well-oiled machine, particularly in the big production numbers such as “When I Grow Up,” “The Smell of Rebellion” and “Revolting Children.” Often individual performances in a show with such a large age spread become more important than the ensemble. Payton and Shaffer never let that happen and it is the main reason “Matilda the Musical” is so good.
As for those individual performances, 9-year-old Kate Walters shines as Matilda. She gives a layered performance that anchors the production. Even when she glues her father’s hat to his head and dyes his hair green, Walters always shows the audience Matilda’s kind heart and humanity. This young actress is stunningly mature and mesmerizing.
Brianne Beck is perfect as Miss Honey, the kind teacher Matilda turns to for solace from her cruel parents. Beck skillfully expresses the teacher’s frustration with Matilda’s treatment in “Pathetic” and the character’s own troubles in “My House.” Miss Honey and Matilda are more than just teacher and student — they are soulmates. Beck portrays that beautifully in her finest performance of many with PTC.
As for those nasty grownups, Ben Layman as schoolmistress Miss Agatha Trunchbull and Dominick Varney and Christie Robinson as Matilda’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, deliver all the outrageousness the company’s season ticket holders expect of them.
Layman, whose tightly wound bun is matched only by his overgrown bosom, personifies meanness. In his wonderfully campy performance, Layman so reminds adults in the audience of an educator from their own past that their palms begin to sweat whenever Miss Trunchbull marches on stage.
Varney most often plays sympathetic characters, but Mr. Wormwood is just not a good dad or a nice guy. The actor best captures the essence of the used car salesman in the song “All I Know” in which Matilda’s father extols the virtues of television teaching instead of book learning. Varney’s skills at slapstick comedy and sinister asides provide many of the show’s laughs. Robinson’s mamboing mama is a selfish, stupid woman whose greatest skills are dancing in high heels and forgetting to bleach out her dark roots. The actress is the yin to Varney’s yang in the book of bad parenting and delightfully “blonde” in the role.
Other standouts in the cast include Axel Carlson as Bruce, Stella Burns as Amanda, Ava Syphers as Lavender, all Matilda’s classmates, and A.J. Mooney as librarian Mrs. Phelps, who delights in the girl’s love of storytelling.
The theater company’s technical team of set designer Tricia A. Hobbs, lighting designer Scout Hough, sound designer Sean McGinley and costume designer Kevin Koski have collaborated to bring Payton and Shaffer’s vision for “Matilda the Musical” to life. All the technical aspects of the production are seamlessly woven together.
The only problem with the show is that the band, under the direction of Phil Burns, is often too loud. Performing from the Opera House’s balcony, the five musicians drown out the young voices and make it difficult to understand the words they are singing. The kids also need to enunciate more clearly in the big production numbers.
In spite of that, “Matilda the Musical” is a great production that, in the same spirit as Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shows how kindness can defeat meanness and small-mindedness and lift everyone’s spirits at the time of the year when darkness prevails.
Penobscot Theatre Company’s “Matilda the Musical” will be performed through Dec. 29 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St. For more information, call 207-942-3333 or visit penobscotthreatre.org.