Chloe Kennedy in MATILDA at Titusville Playhouse. Photo by Niko Stamos.
By KRISTIN SPRINGER
BREVARD CULTURE Guest Critic
Steven J. Heron opens the Titusville Playhouse’s 55th Season with the magical family-friendly musical “Matilda.”
As the first theater in Brevard County to obtain the rights to “Matilda”, TPI moved mountains to obtain a production team and cast who can deliver on the iconoclastic score and jaw-dropping special effects. Setting the stage with a prelude from “Nightmare Before Christmas” by Danny Elfman, TPI’s “Matilda” bites its thumb at traditional institutions like family and academia; shining its light instead on downtrodden individuals and convincing us all that “sometimes we have to be a little bit naughty.”
Based on the 1988 children’s novel by Roald Dahl (who also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the narrative centers on Matilda Wormwood, a precocious 5-year-old British girl with the gift of telekinesis. She loves reading, overcomes obstacles caused by her family and school and helps her teacher to reclaim her life. Heron has double cast the title role with Chloe Kennedy (a new face to Brevard County audiences) and area resident Amelia Harrop.
Matilda is one of the most difficult leading roles for a child in the Broadway canon, and 10-year old Kennedy is more than up to the challenge (this reviewer has not seen Harrop’s performance). Her rapid diction and brassy notes skillfully cover the vocal score as written by Tim Minchin in songs such as “Naughty,” “Quiet,” and the four tall-tale segments she conveys to her excitable librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Marcy Szymanski). Kennedy covers her comic scenes with cleverness and grace as she gets back at the adults in her life in a way that would enhearten Lemony Snicket.
Matilda’s parents, too consumed with their careers and hobbies to tolerate anything so mundane as a daughter, are hysterically played by Joey Leavitt and Lindsay Nantz. In a constant reminder to Matilda that her very presence is a mistake, Mr. Wormwood continuously refers to his daughter as a boy until their statuses flip and he realizes that she is valued by someone else. With the help of their doctor/son, played by Kevin Nolan, and dance partner, Noah McAmis (Rudolpho) they belittle the personality traits of intelligence and academic prowess to both Matilda and her teacher, Miss Honey.
The Wormwood family’s ostentatious priorities provide a stark contrast to the formality of school where Matilda thrives. Of special note are McAmis’s seismic hips and flexibility in his show-stopping Latino number, “Loud.” Another surprise was Leavitt’s high kicks in his vaudevillian number with half-pint sidekick Raina Grabowski (Lavender) during intermission (return with your refilled drink in time to see them).
Sarah Biggs returns to the TPI stage after roles as Penny Pingleton in Titusville’s “Hairspray” and Miss Flannery in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” as the timid and charitable Miss Honey who provides an emotional shelter for Matilda. Teaching precocious children is nothing new to Biggs, a drama and dance teacher at Astronaut High School. Miss Honey casts a positive light on the profession of teaching, advocating for and treating even the least academic of her students with respect, all at a pitiful salary which affords her only a shack. She grows in confidence and vocal acuity from “This Little Girl” (in which she vows to help Matilda) to “My House” in which she professes that even a lonely life in poverty beats a life of abuse at the hand of the school mistress, Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Jordyn Linkous).
Linkous returns to the TPI stage to play the “Matilda” hilarious villain after his roles as Jacob in “La Cage aux Folles” and Riff Raff in “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (he also designs the cast’s wigs and costumes). As the headmistress in shabby, busty drag, Linkous balances male athleticism and intimidation tactics with female prissiness and vulnerability. Listening to Linkous’ voice vacillate between high and low pitches accentuates the duplicity in the character’s personality and actions — a very humorous effect.
The youthful ensemble includes a class of big kids and another of littler ones effectively shrinking the younger set to their prescribed age of kindergarteners. Choreographed by Luke Atkison to copious hip-hop dance, you will love the journey the ensemble takes from the self-indulged “Miracle” to the buoyant “When I Grow Up”— staged with an enormous swing set and the mutinous “Revolting Children.” There are very few round vowels or operatic chords, instead the ensemble’s vocal timbres extend the brassiness established by its protagonist, blending and harmonizing with agility to manifest this radical score.
As it becomes clear that Matilda’s life is founded on the unstable terrain of a Jenga tower; the story poses the questions “Who fits in society’s boxes?” and “Why might it be better to go one’s own way?” These questions are framed (by designer Cliff Price who works for Disney) in the set’s hundreds of stacked and scattered boxes which store pivotal props such as picture books and toiletries. The frames are an intentional departure from the tiles used in the NYC production, since that motif is restricted exclusively for designer Rob Howell on Broadway. Randomly constructed the way a preschooler might stack a surplus of present boxes on Christmas afternoon, the boxes in TPI’s set light up with lettering for dramatic effect on specific lyrics. The square motif is also reflected in the flooring which mimic carpet squares of varied colors. Lighting and projection designer, also Atkison, moves plot’s setting from home to school to shack primarily with swaths of technicolor and one smaller wall of the boxes on coasters.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Matilda the Musical” runs through Sept. 1st at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia St., Titusville, FL. Tickets are $25 to $35. Call 321-268-1125 or visit TitusvillePlayhouse.com.Kristin Springer is a Master Music Educator who grew up in Florida and holds a graduate degree from New York University. She offers private vocal coaching, piano lessons, Triple Talent and Music Readiness classes out of the Springer Music Studio. For a link to her studio’s Facebook page, click here.