Chloe Kennedy in MATILDA at Titusville Playhouse. Photo by Niko Stamos.
By PAM HARBAUGH
Move over Snow White, take a hike Annie, cool it, Cindy. Something fresh is on the horizon: “Matilda, the Musical,” opening Friday at Titusville Playhouse.
Based on the 1988 children’s novel by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, the story follows Matilda Wormwood, a five-year old genius who has a supernatural gift of telekinesis. Not only does she have to deal with neglectful parents, but also a cruel school principal.
Wait, don’t start crying. This is a really cool musical and very Roald Dahl-y…imbued with a dark and cynical storyline designed to make children and adults laugh and feel empowered over those monsters lurking beneath the bed (or in congress).
There are over the top, comic depictions of children being put into frightening cabinets, getting swung around by their pigtails, enduring ridicule from adults and generally being mistreated by adults. And songs like “Naughty,” “The Smell of Rebellion” and “Revolting Children.” But there is also victory.
Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it “…the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”
Director Steven Heron said the Titusville production has it all…except the letter blocks which are trademarked, i.e. theaters are not allowed to borrow that motif.
The two girls who alternate in playing Matilda at Titusville say the quirky show will entertain and make you laugh.
“I feel like some parts can be pretty scary, but I know we’re just acting,” said 10-year old Chloe Kennedy, who lives in Orlando. “And it turns out to be really funny. The mean people go from being super mean to really happy and bubbly.”
Area resident Amelia Harrop, an 11-year old, agreed. “It’s funny. Trunchbull is mean, but also, really, really, really, really funny.”
Trunchbull is the headmistress of the school. The musical is written for a man to play the part. At Titusville, the part will be played by Jordyn Linkous, who has quickly risen to the top of Titusville Playhouse’s company. He was the hysterical maid in “La Cage aux Folles,” Mrs. Meers in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and most recently Roger in “Rent.” Linkous has also designed the costumes for “Matilda.”
Amelia’s mother, Jennifer, said that Linkous is so over the top superb in his comic portrayal of Trunchbull that you just want to “giggle the whole time.”
Sarah Biggs is Miss Honey, the kindly librarian who takes Matilda under her wing. Miss Honey is the adult friend so long needed by Matilda. Biggs has also become an important member in the Titusville Playhouse company. She was Penny Pingleton in Titusville’s popular production of “Hairspray,” Miss Flannery in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and was in the ensemble of the Henegar’s production of “West Side Story,” which was mounted by Titusville’s creative team.
“Matilda” has a book written by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian. It has been a big hit almost as it first emerged in 2010 from the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. From there it went to London’s West End in 2011 and then Broadway in 2013 where it ran for nearly four years. It won four Tony Awards and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical, among other awards. It has since toured nationally and around the world.
Titusville is one of the first theaters in Florida to get permission to produce “Matilda.” It ran for one weekend last month at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach which produced the show for its children’s program. Titusville frequently is the first theater in the area to produce new shows.
Heron said Titusville will be first to produce the regular version of “Elf the Musical” and will be producing “Something Rotten” later this season.
“I always open the season with a family friendly show and something not done,” Heron said. “I was offered ‘Matilda’ two years ago. I agreed.
“When I go to conferences, other theaters ask how do I get on the super secret list to get shows early. I tell them it’s about networking.”
Heron said it’s also about success making more success.
Show publishers, like MTI (Musical Theatre International) keep an eye on how much a theater pays in royalties. Once it hits a threshold, Heron said, the theater gets moved up in the priority chain.
Titusville’s production will use the famous swinging motif and other theatrical tricks for the telekinesis moments. However, he and other theaters are not allowed to use the letter tiles created by scenic designer Rob Howell.
So instead, Heron turned to scenic designer Cliff Price, who works for Disney, to find a solution.
“We has done an amazing job creating the same feel and flexibility, but we’re not using tiles,” Heron said. “We’re using boxes that form these huge blocks and there are things in the blocks, parts of her memory.”
Of course, most importantly was to get the right cast, especially the nine children who rather carry the show.
About 80 children auditioned. To get them ready to put their best foot forward, Heron offered a one-day acting boot camp at Titusville Playhouse and at Melbourne’s Henegar Center, which Titusville Playhouse runs.
About 60 children attended the boot camp, which taught songs and dances. Then, they were invited to actually audition for the nine spots in the show.
“As a director, I want people to come in and do their best,” Heron said. “If they can do their best, then my job is easier. I think people are going to be astounded by the talent of these children.
In fact, the boot camp approach was so successful, Heron’s considering offering it to adult actors as well.
The two Matildas – Amelia and Chloe – said the experience has been so wonderful that they have made some great new best friends.
Ironically, when “Matilda” opened on Broadway, Heron had no interest in seeing it. But he went anyway and was surprised.
“I fell in love with it because it’s dark and humorous and pretty spectacular,” he said.
For sure, triumph over childhood adversity is at the heart of “Matilda, the Musical.” There are themes of bullying and being a misfit.
“Education becomes a source of salvation,” Heron said. “That’s what I love about Matilda. She is so smart in that world. It’s a great little story.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Matilda the Musical” opens Friday and runs through Sept. 1 at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia St., Titusville, FL. Tickets are $25 to $35. Call 321-268-1125 or visit TitusvillePlayhouse.com.