MATILDA – Book by Dennis Kelly; Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin; Directed by Steve Wilson; Music Direction by Donna Kalpan Debreceni; Choreographed by Carrie Coulton. Produced by Town Hall Arts Center (2450 Main Street, Littleton) through December 31. Tickets available at TownHallArtsCenter.org or 303-794-2787.
WOW! What a night!! Recently the theatre community turned out enmasse to support the Denver Actors Fund and their friends in the Town Hall production of MATILDA on an Industry Night performance. Several in the audience who are currently in their own shows in other theaters gave up their own only night off to be there. So, the audience was stoked and pre-primed to have a good time. And a GOOD time they had.
To those of you who keep track of such things, make a note to watch out for these nine talented young performers. These kids are Broadway stars in the making: Lily Allred, Mason Mertz-Hutchinson, Sam Bird, Ellie Plenk, Emmalyn Garces, Owen Plenk, Alex Hagar, Camille Richards, and Blake Channing Taylor. These talented artists are going to rule New York very soon, if that’s what they choose to do. They gave the show a monumental amount of energy; they kept up with and often led the adult dancers; they allowed their individual talents and personalities to come through in fully developed characters; and they had fun every step of the way. All the while, they were keeping up with their schoolwork, going through their first semester finals, and trying to get ready for the holidays. I know this because four of these little wonders are from my school – Denver School of the Arts. Good job, Maggots!!
These kids let themselves be locked up in the “chokey,” an Iron-Maiden-like device used for discipline, be flung around like a discus by their braids, be forced to eat a whole chocolate cake, and be generally tormented by the Big Kids and Ms. Trunchbull, the head mistress. And, in some cases, by their parents.
The hero of this is Matilda, a young student with immeasurable calm, presence of mind, patience, and hope for the future. She LOVES books and what books can teach her. On the night of this special performance Ellie Plenk took on the role and made it hers. Town Hall, taking no chances, has no less than three understudies for the role. Ellie had a quiet confidence about her that belied her youth – both as Ellie and as Matilda. She has a strong singing voice and an appealing charm. However, her English accent – like several in the cast – was so pronounced, it was difficult to comprehend her lines – both spoken and sung – on occasion.
Poor Matilda was born into a family that wasn’t expecting her and didn’t want her. Her father insolently called her “Boy” and forbade her books when he insisted everything she needed to know, she could learn from the telly. Mike Martinkus has made a solid career in musicals all over town, but he tops if off with his larcenous used-car-salesman-reluctant-father role. He has a monologue at the beginning of Act Two where he reprimands the audience for their bad behavior during Act I. He was so convincing that my companion turned to me and said, Is this part of the show or is he really mad?”
Matilda’s mother isn’t any better. She denied that she was pregnant until she couldn’t. “We have one kid. We don’t need any more!” A narcissistic shallow enabler for her husband and son, more concerned with the dance competition she has entered than anything else, Jamie Molina rocks this role with her slinky dance moves and disregard for her needy daughter. She is ably assisted by Joe Bernard as Rudolpho, her arrogant dance partner. Joe has no bones in his body or if he does, they are made of rubber. His Latin dance moves must be seen to be believed. Her only sibling is Michael, an older brother played by Ben Davis. He’s as big a doofus as his parents are meanies and so tall that it becomes a sort of running joke every time he stands up. These parents make a strong statement about emotional abuse of a child that would be hard to watch were it not so over the top and so damn funny. It helps that Matilda is turning out sweet and smart despite them
There are two other helpful role models in Matilda’s life. The first is Mrs. Phelps, the librarian that appreciates the good stories that Matilda devises out of thin air. Mrs. Phelps is a happy soul played by a happy soul – SonsharaeTull – who waits impatiently for the next chapter in the current story, giving Matilda encouragement in her made up world of caring parents. The second role model is Ms. Honey, her teacher at the Crunchem Hall. Ms. Honey as played by Cara Lippitt is a sweet unassuming woman who stays at the school under Trunchbull’s thumb because she genuinely cares for the kids and is fearful of what might be done to them if she weren’t around. Her eventual role in Matilda’s story about the loving acrobatic couple makes it seem as though Matilda conjured Ms. Honey into being.
Now we come to the crux of the story – the mean, ugly, despicable vengeful Ms. Trunchbull, the hated Headmistress. She is Simon Legree, Cruella deVille, Scrooge McDuck and the Wicked Witch of the West all rolled into one. As this show was born out of Roald Dahl’s book and set in the UK, the role is usually played by a man in the “panto” tradition, but when Trunchbull walked on stage for the first time, I was convinced Town Hall had broken tradition and cast some unknown older woman in the role. A quick glance at the program assured me that – in, indeed – it was our very own Brian Merz-Hutchinson in a fantastically tortured wig, an exaggerated set of “girls,” an enormous hump on her back (move over, Igor) and a convincingly sour expression on her face. In addition to the afore-mentioned cruelties she created for the kids, she also swings from the ceiling, jumps on a trampoline, sings like a – well, not a lark – maybe more like an ostrich, and dances in combat boots. You may have noticed a similarity in name between Ms. Trunchbull and one of her charges. Yes, Brian and son Mason are performing together. Mason as Bruce is the chocolate cake eating student in a scene which personifies fun. The whole audience was rooting for him screaming “Bruceeeee” at every bite.
Everyone involved in this production gave it their best work. Nikki Harrison’s costumes were on point; the set designed by Brian Watson was a quaint classroom with movable parts; and the magic tricks orchestrated by James Lopez were artfully arranged. The choreography by Carrie Coulton created an ensemble that was in sync throughout the complicated dance numbers on the small Town Hall stage.
I hope Denver Actors Fund made a boatload of money that night because the cast and crew worked their little buns off, and the audience was over the top in their vocal appreciation and applause.
A WOW factor of 9.5!!