I attended Quad City Music Guild's Thursday preview of Matilda: The Musical, and as I'd never before seen the 2010 show, hadn't seen the 1996 movie, and hadn't read the 1988 Roald Dahl book it's based on, I obviously came very late to this party – and it's a huge party.
For those who don't know, Matilda is an English child genius whose parents didn't want her, and punish her for reading (her only joy). In 2016, Matilda became Dahl's best-selling novel (eclipsing Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), and the stage version, with its book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, won multiple Olivier Awards (in London) and Tony Awards (in New York). Sony/Tristar are now in production with another film adaptation, which Netflix will debut in December of 2022. Like that screen project, Music Guild's production was delayed by the pandemic, and due to the highly contagious variant, everyone in the theatre is now masked. I'm saddened that they're again necessary indoors. However, watching this Matilda's talented, passionate, and exuberant performers, I soon forgot about the masks.
Director Heather Beck and music director Adam Beck have really triumphed with this one. Matilda boasts a large cast, multiple settings, challenging scenes to stage, and big musical numbers, and the Becks clearly paid careful attention to each element. Choreographer Hillary Erb and her assistant Valeree Pieper tackled their considerable task equally well. The sound, lighting, and scene changes proceeded smoothly despite a couple of tiny bumps. (This was, after all, still technically a rehearsal.) And the cast members, skilled singers all, were supported by 12 excellent musicians in the pit.
Author Dahl might well have given Wrigley Mancha's Matilda a standing ovation. It takes an extraordinary actor to play an extraordinary character well, and Mancha is so believable as an eight-year-old that I thought, paradoxically, "She might actually be in college." In other words, it usually takes many years to get as good as Mancha is at age 13, after only four years of acting. Her charisma and sparkle are enthralling.
Matilda's shallow Mum and crude Dad are mind-numbingly stupid, and if they weren't so laughable, the show would be too tragic to enjoy. But Melissa Anderson-Clark makes Matilda's mother Mrs. Wormwood equally despicable and ridiculous from the start, and I would never have guessed that Tony Hiatt is making his stage debut as Mr. Wormwood – he's not only funny, but has his stage skills down pat.
Versatile stage veteran Lauren VanSpeybroeck is lovable as Matilda's teacher and advocate Miss Honey. She's as sweet as her name, and timid, but determined to nourish Matilda's talents. Ali Knollenberg is Mrs. Phelps, the librarian whom Matilda enthralls with her stories. They are her only buffers against the cruelty of family and school – not that Matilda's classmates are against her. It's heartwarming to see them unite to battle … well, a battle-ax.
There's a looming terror of sadistic teachers in the English psyche, and though horrible adults populate some American schools, it's different here. (Could Animal House's Dean Wormer hope to square off against Professor Snape or Miss Umbridge?) However, even we Yanks can readily hate the despot of Matilda's school – the ultimate if-you-don't-eat-your-meat-you-can't-have-any-pudding fiend Miss Trunchbull. She's loathsome and teeters on the edge of comedy – but she does put children into small, spiky boxes. In Music Guild's production, Trunchbull is wonderfully portrayed by one of the most protean actors I know: Sara Wegener. I've seen her as Squeaky Fromme in Assassins and as Lurch in The Addams Family – both very different, but ostensibly scary. Trunchbull could eat Squeaky and Lurch for breakfast.
I wish I had room to mention everyone in the ensemble – most of whom are elementary, high school, and college students – because they're among the best groups of supporting actors I've yet seen in community theatre. From the opening number "Miracle" and throughout, I was struck by the precision and life they brought to their lines, singing, and movements, and the performers continually provide snappiness, comedic flailing, and fluidity, as appropriate. Another delightful scene was the students' "School Song” warning to newcomers, with the kids using gymnastics to illuminate the clever lyrics.
One particular standout from that opening number is the doctor (specifically, the OB/GYN who attends Matilda's birth), and later, we meet Mrs. Wormwood's dance partner, the extraordinarily limber and hilarious Rudolpho. Both roles were played by Sam Whan, who also portrays the Escapologist from one of Matilda's stories, and I hope to see Whan on-stage again soon. I also enjoyed Micah Roldan as Bruce, a hapless, latter-day Augustus Gloop-type whose mask was amusingly brown after a chocolate-eating scene.
Act II does start oddly, with Mr. Wormwood (appearing with his son Michael, played by Alex Pappas) speaking directly to us during an English-music-hall-style ode to his television. Then, Lavender (Ellerie Hurley) describes an upcoming prank involving a newt. Afterward, though, things get back to a traditional musical format, with the beautifully wistful "When I Grow Up” number finding children taking turns on swings as they imagine attaining all the bravery, knowledge, and freedom of adulthood. There is so much to relish in this production – even the painful parts. You'll go home elated.
Quad City Music Guild's Matilda: The Musical runs at the Prospect Park Auditorium (1584 34th Avenue, Moline) through August 15, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-6610 and visiting QCMusicGuild.com.