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Preview: Precocious miracle child ‘Matilda’ begins weeklong run at The Smith Center

Updated March 15, 2017 - 12:14 pm

Growing up in England, kids at the dinner table were taught, “Children are to be seen, not heard.” In other words, when adults were talking, children had to remain silent. Worse, though, was that school headmasters rarely thought of children as “adorable,” “sweet” or “delightful.” Instead, children were little better than “revolting vermin.”

But in Roald Dahl’s award-winning “Matilda the Musical,” he creates a 5-year-old miracle child to turn those rules upside down and be the exception to them. And tonight the stage musical based on the children’s novel of the same name comes to life at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

The story of precocious 5-year-old Matilda Wormwood, with the gift of telekinesis who overcomes obstacles of school and family, has been adapted by Dennis Kelly with fabulous foot-stomping music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Yes, the chalk writes itself on the blackboard, and cups float in the air!

What would you expect from a prodigy who reads Dickens and Dostoyevsky while her abusive mother proudly proclaims, “Looks are better than books.” Three young performers rotate as the adorable kid contrarian. Ironically the producers never planned on casting children because of the difficulties they face with studying and limited work hours while on the road touring.

Two tutors who act as guardians are accompanied by two additional guardians to ensure that the minimum of 15 hours of weekly schooling of the cast continues in accord with Equity rules. There are 13 children in the cast as company manager Michael Altbaum recently told The Smith Center patrons and we reported here Feb. 24.

The show began as a 3-month trial run staged by The Royal Shakespeare Company in England in November 2010, and its success led to a West End premiere a year later, then Broadway in 2013 for 1,555 performances. It won five 2013 Tony Awards in New York and 11 Olivier Awards in England.

It is touring in America and Australia, and it is still running in London’s West End. The music and dancing are superb — and extraordinarily colorful! The swing-and-vault sequences are choreographed so brilliantly that the kids rehearse them before each show.

Said Michael: “Most of the young performers have been with the show since last year. Some have been in other touring productions before this one, including 12-year-old Jordan Hall, who has performed in ‘Motown the Musical’ and ‘The Lion King.’ He’s pretty much a pro.”

With the cast of divided about 50-50 between children and adults, the show features children performers more than most. Michael believes that is one of the reasons the show has such energy — it showcases highly skilled child actors ecstatic to be there.

“They understand what they’re doing and the specialness of their environment and this experience,” he said. “They’re more aware than anyone how cool this is to perform on a professional stage. They are an amazing group.”

Actresses playing Matilda have included Hannah Levinson, Jaime MacLean, Jenna Weir and Gabby Gutierrez — all scene stealers. Joining them onstage is the show’s dance captain, 27-year-old Brittany Nichols, who at just under 5 feet could easily take on one of the roles when needed.

Young Aiden Bushey plays the school kid forced to eat chocolate cake by the wicked headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, played by Dan Chameory. Paula Brancati plays the loveable teacher, Miss Honey, who goes head to toe with the wretched school boss. The musical was given the rare opportunity of making a Royal Variety performance for The Queen — all the more impressive as the cast performed on the 100th anniversary of The Royal Command show.

When the production recently played in Phoenix, reviewer Kerry Lengel of The Arizona Republic wrote, “Either the English school system is one of the horriblest institutions on Earth or it is the victim of an outrageous smear campaign by the British literary establishment.”

I assure Kerry that they are more like prisons than holiday camps, and it explains why I couldn’t wait to leave at just 15 years of age and go off to start my first newspaper job when I turned 16 a month later! Tyranny always loses out in the end.

Check out the Monty Python slams over the years against upper-class twits! Like a lot of madcap British humor, “Matilda” is dark and satirical, with a tip of the hat to Monty with the “Telly” second act opening number — all rollicking good fun. Throw in dance music and catchy lyrics, and you’ve got a huge hit on your hands. It’s jolly good, as we say back in Blighty.

Yes, it is a kid’s world, and childlike innocence against pompous authority always wins in the end.

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