ORLANDO — The story of Matilda, a highly intelligent little girl in a cruel world, comes from the fiendish imagination of British writer Roald Dahl, and if you’re at all familiar with his work, you know he has a penchant for dark humor and not a trace of sentimentality.
Matilda The Musical, now being produced by Little Radical Theatrics, could have been expected to, as Mary Poppins once said, add a spoonful of sugar to this dark tale. It’s actually to the credit of this Orlando theater company and the show’s director, Travis Eaton, that the only sugar here is by the coffee machine out ion the lobby of Orlando Shakes, where the show is being performed.
With a spectacular ensemble cast and a truly sharp and striking lead performance by Lilly Belle Lanese, this is the perfect kids show for adults — barely flinching from the darker aspects of our world, but finding a sane and logical voice in young Matilda to guide us through it.
What is Matilda The Musical?
The musical, with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, captures a suitably darkly humorous tone that Dahl would probably have found just delicious. Matilda is born to two dim-wit parents, including a mother who gets annoyed that the child loves to read, and a father who keeps wishing she were a boy. Smart, highly advanced for her age, Matilda’s gifts are recognized by her kind teacher Miss Honey once Matilda starts school. Miss Honey is astonished that Matilda can not only read books (and has already finished such literary classics as Crime And Punishment and A Tale Of Two Cities) but can solve mathematical problems in the blink of an eye.
But between her uncaring (at best) mother and father, Matilda has the added problem of attending a school run by the tyrannical headmistress Mrs. Trunchbull, who puts the V in vicious and delights in tormenting children. It’s not long before Mrs. Truchbull sets her sights on Matilda.
But as it turns out, Matilda has a trick or two up her sleeve.
Stories of bad childhoods probably don’t normally align themselves well with family musicals, and as I noted, this production does nothing to soft petal how beastly her parents or the vile headmistress are. Those who don’t leave the show thoroughly despising them may want to get checked to see if they have serial killer ambitions.
At the same time, we have glimpses into the happier moments of Matilda’s life, including the pleasure she gets in telling tall tales to her appreciative librarian or how she bonds with the lonely and mousy Miss Honey. The more Matilda feels appreciated by them, the more determined she is to fight back against the oppressors in her life. And before you can say “Stephen King’s ‘Carrie,’ ” Matilda discovers she’s got something of a special gift.
How Is The Little Radical Theatrics Production?
With a cast large enough to fill up a small European nation, this one soars on its acting talent. Bright, perky and clever, Lanese turns our little heroine into a pure delight, and Karina Lebaron is sweet and affectionate as Miss Honey.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that a story is only as good as its villains, and his theory is put to the test here. Marlo Coffin is deliciously despicable as Mrs. Trunchbull, the kind of person who makes your skin crawl before she even begins speaking. She’s a tour de force of hideous horrors, and she never goes sentimental by the end.
Neither do Nico Allen and Stephanie Viegas as Matilda’s dim bulb parents, who think having a smart daughter is a torment. Together, they keep you rooting for Matilda that much more passionately.
Matilda The Musical will have a final show tonight at 7:30 p.m. inside the Mandell Studio Theater at the Orlando Shakes, 812 E. Rollins St. It would be positively criminal to miss the final show.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.