Stage: Matilda the Musical – Teatro at Montecasino, Johannesburg (until December 2)
then Artscape, Cape Town (December 9 to January 13)
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
THE enchantment with this widely acclaimed musical interpretation of the 1996 film inspired by the 1988 Roald Dahl children’s book begins the minute one arrives in the theatre and sees the exposed set.
It is jaw-droppingly impressive – a collage of countless suspended Scrabble-like squares and blocks that seem to dangle in mid-air and extend the full width of the stage. Many contain letters in different colours and fonts. At the stage’s centre are suspended illuminated letters spelling out the show title in front of a depiction of towering, wonky shelves filled with books.
The sense of wonder, nonsense, mischief and invention that dominates Dahl’s world is perfectly captured… and continues to emerge throughout a show that has raked in more than 85 international awards, including 16 for Best Musical, and proves ideal family fun.
The first production of the show with an all-South African cast, Matilda the Musical is presented by Pieter Toerien and GWB Entertainment. A carbon-copy of the London production, where it is now in its seventh year, it is a slick, subversive, sometimes sinister, sometimes sentimental, always sparkling and spirited concoction laden with surprises and as much heart as hilarity. I loved it!
Matilda, an intelligent child with an insatiable appetite for books, tries to deal with the pains of school, authority and bullying. She also has to cope with a loveless, screwball family that would prefer her to be gone or, at the very least, a boy. And she also has to deal with the discovery of a superpower.
The role is being played by three young actresses who will alternate throughout the season – Lilla Fleischmann, Kitty Harris and Morgan Santo.
I saw Fleischmann at a preview performance. One of the actresses who shared the title role in the recent touring production of Annie, she is quite superb as Matilda. She lends intelligence, mischief and poignancy to a character that finds much-needed love with her sweet teacher, the aptly named Miss Honey (Singing in the Rain’s Bethany Dickson in fine voice) and likeable Jamaican librarian Mrs Phelps (an amusing Nompumelelo Mayiyane).
Among other standouts in Matilda’s life is her towering and terrible headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who was once an Olympic medallist for hammer-throwing. She is played well by a tall man in drag, musical theatre newcomer Ryan de Villiers.
Of note, too, are Matilda’s truly horrid parents (played with gusto and brilliance by Claire Taylor and Stephen Jubber) who take kitsch and craziness to a new level.
A number of children and older dancers round out a zealous and massively talented cast. To single out performers in this tight ensemble might seem unfair, but Taylor Salgado, as Matilda’s kooky, self-appointed best friend, Lavender, makes a big impression. She is a constant hoot.
Besides uniformally good performances and deft direction, Matilda the Musical wins extra points for superb choreography by Peter Darling that is sharp, spunky and inspired, heads and shoulders above what one would normally see children performing, A big backslap there!
The songs by Tim Minchin, if not the greatest, are varied, by turns catchy, poppy, sometimes even spooky, and lyrics are often clever, most notably in School Song, which references each letter of the alphabet while children climb a large school gate. It’s a standout scene, as is the Chokey Chant routine, which has children in a classroom discussing a detention nook made of spikes, nails and wood.
I also loved the When I Grow Up sequence, with children on swings that reach over the footlights; the reflective Quiet, sung by Matilda, and the moving My House, performed by Miss Honey.
Expect a kaleidoscope of surprises in this spirited musical which makes use of everything from a slide to swings and trampolines; cannons that shoot confetti over the audience; a gigantic blackboard where chalk appears to write on its own; and where you will also come across the likes of a camp ballroom dancer, a sloth of a teenager, and a Russian gangster with sexy, shady sidekicks.
Performances at the Teatro at Montecasino are at 8pm Tuesdays to Fridays, 3pm and 8pm on Saturdays, and 1.30pm and 6pm on Sundays. Booking is at Computicket outlets.