A Fantastical 'Matilda' at the Beck Center

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click to enlarge A Fantastical 'Matilda' at the Beck Center
Photo by Andy Dudik

Surrounded by chalkboards decorated with colorful letters and numbers, Matilda is opened by costumed children exaggeratedly singing about their magnificence, all backed by an orchestral cacophony.

And that’s only the first song in a show that renounces the mundane and celebrates the fantastical.

The cast and creatives at the Beck Center for the Arts have successfully embraced the whimsy, exaggerated character traits and, of course, the humor that characterizes the beloved story of Matilda.

This seven-time Oliver Award-winning, five-time Tony Award-winning and Grammy Award-nominated show has been wowing audiences since its first performance in 2010. Based on Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name, Matilda follows a 5-year-old girl who is unloved by her self-absorbed, cruel parents. When Matilda begins school, her love of literature and remarkable intelligence is embraced by her teacher, Miss Honey, but is despised by the horrid headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. As she suffers under the hands of authority, Matilda begins to find the courage to stand up for herself and others.

Scott Spence took a quite traditional approach in his direction of Matilda, the show that marks his 100th time directing a show at the Beck Center. Beck’s show is a classic production of the original work adapted by Dennis Kelly, with Tim Minchin’s music being nailed by musical director Larry Goodpaster’s eight-piece orchestra.

While the set of Matilda has in the past been decorated with books or children’s wooden block letters, designer Trad Burns has opted to use chalkboards of various sizes and shapes as the setting for the show. Beautiful projections co-designed by Burns and Jason Taylor adorn the chalkboards, rendering them as school lockers, flowers, a funky wallpaper and more. Lighting by Ben Gantose is used to isolate characters when need be, but it is for the most part a colorful execution that imbues the show with a sense of whimsy and fun.

It’s easy to fall in love with the titular character, especially when she is played by the super-sweet voiced, relatively tiny Sophia Tsenekos. Sharing the character with Ella Stec, Tsenekos on opening night displayed just the right amount of attitude, precociousness and lovability as Matilda.

Her young voice shows through strongest during the number “Quiet,” which just so happens to be the song where Matilda shuts out the world and finds a strength within herself.

The same lovability is projected from Samantha Lucas in her role as Miss Honey. Miss Honey often struggles with her self-confidence, which is a result of an upbringing closely resembling that of Matilda’s. Lucas has an incredible voice that shines in her songs “Pathetic” and “This Little Girl.”

She is surrounded by talented, young, school uniform-clad students, played by Owen Hill, Colin Willett, Nolan Tiech, Grace Mackin, Clara Endleman, Marissa Dingess and Ellie Ritterbusch. Leading the class is the entertaining Finn O’Hara as the belching, troublesome Bruce. Thankfully, the belches, along with other supplementary noises, are provided by sound designer Angie Hayes rather than O’Hara himself.

All of the actors on stage use a British accent for the night, and—based on grumblings of both young and old audience members during intermission—it was sometimes difficult to discern what the younger actors were saying.

However, there was rightfully no quibbling about the choreography by Martín Céspedes, whose movements were of a proper complexity for the differing ages and capabilities on stage. While 9-year-old Tsenekos’ choreography was justifiably more simple, older members of the ensemble, as well as dance teacher Rudolpho and Matilda’s ball room dancing mother, Mrs. Wormwood, had more complicated moves.

Along with fine dancing, Olivia Billings brings a great voice to her character of Mrs. Wormwood. In this role, Billings is shrill, slightly dim-witted and annoying—which is a proper portrayal for this mother we should all hate.
Opposite of Billings is Timothy Allen as the tyrannical Mr. Wormwood. Allen is exquisitely animated in his movements, and, thanks to his green striped suit designed by Inda Blatch-Geib, he resembles a springy cartoon character.
Alongside his dense son Michael, played by Lee Price, Allen’s song “Telly,” in which Mr. Wormwood renounces books and praises the television, is a real crowd-pleaser.

Also a crowd-pleaser, and practically a show-stealer, is the fantastic Trey Gilpin as Miss Trunchbull. Gilpin’s song “The Smell of Rebellion,” wherein Trunchbull subjects children to a grueling physical-ed class, complete with a mini trampoline and matted pommel horse, is a hilarious look into Trunchbull’s belief that “children are maggots.” The character is cold-blooded and callous, however, Gilpin’s casting as the discordant, strict, Olympian woman added an immense amount of humor to the stage and story.

The Beck Center for the Arts’ Matilda is a loud, outlandish and wild production with sensational characters and a far-fetched story—and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Through Aug. 11 at the Beck Center for the Arts’ Mackey Theater, 17801 Detroit Ave, Lakewood, Tickets $10-33, beckcenter.org or call 216-521-2540.
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