Matilda at First Stage

Musical Review: ‘Matilda’ Makes it in Milwaukee

A lot of pieces needed to come together for First Stage to make one of Roald Dahl’s opuses work on stage. They did come together.

Matilda at First Stage
Marina Evans (front) and Solana Ramirez-Garcia in ‘Matilda’; photo by Paul Ruffolo

Again, First Stage has shown that it isn’t merely a “children’s theater” in its 32nd season. It takes on all-ages themes, but gives more than 30 kids the opportunity to share those lessons as the centerpiece in this production.

With Matilda the Musical, which opened Jan. 11 at Todd Wehr Theater, First Stage has challenged itself with a deceptively challenging script — and lived up to the challenge.

Matilda at First Stage

This rendition of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which premiered in Shakespeare’s hometown in 2010 and found its way to Broadway three years later, is the same Matilda we all know from the book or movie or what-have-you. The musical has simply added a grunge-enhancing filter throughout its 150-minute runtime.

Marina Evans, one of three different girls to fill the title role (along with Taylor Arnstein and Reese Bell) on alternating days, has become exactly what we all think of when we remember Matilda. Since Costume Designer Arnold Bueso didn’t mess around with the proven formula and the whole cast’s performances proved the worth of Dialect Coach Tyne Turner, Evans was able to truly become the iconic character, from her accent to her hair to her untarnished spirit.

And there are no weak spots in the youth ensemble (with a total of 28 child actors split between two casts) either, with one of the cruxes lying on the character of Bruce — played by either Max Larson or Tryg Gundersen. Whether it’s engorging on a chocolate cake or visibly expelling horrifically scented belches, he’s a laugh-center of the show.

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Matilda the Musical at First Stage

Jan. 11-Feb. 24, Fridays-Sundays

Todd Wehr Theater, 123 E. State St.

Tickets: $22-$62

First Stage doesn’t mess with the sets in this production, taking its cues from how it was staged on Broadway. But two or three magical moments stand out against orthodox motifs of alphabet blocks and chalkboards. Credit Design Supervisor Brandon Kirkham for those.

Matilda at First Stage
Taylor Arnstein, Jackson Evans, Molly Rhode and Jonathan Neustifter in ‘Matilda’

Our leading adult women — with Kelly Doherty as the imposing Miss Trunchbull and Elizabeth Telford as the endlessly caring Miss Honey — both knew their roles and filled them fully.

Trunchbull is cartoonishly villainous, but Doherty approached the stock character with enough tact to remind us of the emotional scars we may remember from fear-inspiring middle-school disciplinarians. And Telford, with a Julie Andrews-like deportment and vocal tone, reminds us of the comfort and inspiration that truly good teachers can provide.

Matilda at First Stage
Kelly Doherty (center, standing) and cast in ‘Matilda’; photo by Paul Ruffolo

If nothing else, Matilda the Musical is a tribute to Roald Dahl’s preeminence.

Matilda asks the question of, what if there’s a child who truly is exceptional? The titular character is lost with nary a peer or support system, and all she wants is to be noticed. She truly is special, unlike the dreaming wannabes surrounding her in kindergarten.

There’s a reason Matilda went from the page to the screen and now to the stage — and a reason why Charlie and the Chocolate Factory did the same thing several times over. And it’s for those reasons that First Stage brought Matilda to Milwaukee.

Moment not to miss

Don’t dawdle during your intermission bathroom break, since the second act opens with an entrancing (if not morally debauched and misguided) deposition from Jackson Evans as Mr. Wormwood on why reading books “makes kids ugly, stinky, fatty, sweaty Betty, boring, gaseous…”

You get the idea.



Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan