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.
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.
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.
Matilda the Musical at First Stage
Jan. 11-Feb. 24, Fridays-Sundays
Todd Wehr Theater, 123 E. State St.
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.
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.