The following review is based on 5-Star Theatricals’ March 22nd opening night performance of “Matilda the Musical,” which featured Lucy Bollier as Matilda (the role is shared with Olivia Marcum).
Legendary novelist Roald Dahl was 72 years old when the Britain-set “Matilda” first appeared on shelves. How someone so far removed from his childhood could so effortlessly capture the imaginative spirit and grit of children is a testament to his genius. Dahl’s book inspired the award-winning musical (adapted by Dennis Kelly with music/lyrics by Tim Minchin), which has similarly proven its longevity for being relatable to not only youth but adults. Needless to say, 5-Star Theatricals’ “Matilda the Musical” — which is playing through only March 31st at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza (Kavli Theatre) — is a riveting reminder of the narrative’s entrancing pull. More than that, it is likely one of the best productions that the company (formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre) has put on its 25-year history. One would be hard-pressed to find a regional show, let alone a national tour, that wows as memorably as it does with its top-tier talent separated by a few generations on stage.
The colorful plot examines not only the innocence of children but their uncorrupted intelligence, especially when they’re afforded an encouraging environment to succeed. At the forefront is the precociously inventive and resourceful Matilda Wormwood (Lucy Bollier), born to two selfish and unloving parents in Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (James Larsen and Janna Cardia). That’s just one of Matilda’s problems, though, given that she and her school classmates are constantly harangued by their dastardly and heartless headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper), who is reminiscent of Nurse Ratched of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” albeit more ridiculously comical than scary, and probably on steroids to boot. Matilda’s only relief from this annoying madness and cruelty are her classroom peers and the heartwarmingly demure Miss Honey (Katie DeShan), a teacher and authority figure who faithfully believes in her star student’s potential to overcome adversity. Librarian Mrs. Phelps (Deanna Anthony) is also a positive influence, as one who raptly listens to Matilda’s revelatory story about The Escape Artist (Ben Carroll) and his wife, The Acrobat (Monica Ricketts).
Director Lewis Wilkenfeld has pulled off a delightful “miracle” of a show that raises and clears the bar with each successive scene. Music Director and Conductor Jennifer Lin leads a highly focused orchestra that doesn’t miss a single note, Choreographer Heather Castillo has captured the frenziedly fun energy of “Matilda,” and Scenic Designer Stephen Gifford has built a spectacular set with towering book cases and a digital chalkboard. Furthermore, Lighting Designer Jose Santiago pleasingly accentuates the alluringly pigmented and eye-catching costumes, designed by Noelle Raffy, and Hair/Wig and Makeup Designers Jessica Mills and Debbie Bryan, respectively, bring Miss Trunchbull’s nightmarishly austere appearance to life.
The cast gives phenomenal performances in a show where the adults have the pleasure of being more rambunctious than the children, who are comparatively more mild-mannered. But that’s all part of the satiric and magical appeal of “Matilda the Musical,” which thrives on a star-making turn by 10-year-old Lucy Bollier in the title role. She has an unflappable poise about her that would make clutch athletes blush, as she seamlessly maneuvers from one cue to another, singing pitch-perfectly during songs like “Naughty” and “Quiet,” making audience members gasp with bated breath as a storyteller, and being compellingly believable as Trunchbull’s match despite her much smaller stature.
Of course, Matilda’s verbally and emotionally abusive parents are the stark opposite of their daughter, who has a passion for learning and a desire to be genuinely good. Mr. Wormwood, for instance, prefers the TV to books, which are the object of his derision. He doesn’t mind using deceptive practices to get rich and has an abject lack of respect for his own daughter, whom he incessantly refers to as “boy.” Nevertheless, because he resembles The Riddler’s cousin, and is generally oblivious to how eccentric he is, we don’t mind laughing at him. James Larsen is superb at getting across Mr. Wormwood as the slapstick caricature he is and has the audience in the palm of his hands when he charismatically defends his persona’s arrested development (who is joined by his slow-minded son Michael, played impeccably by Nick McKenna) in “Telly.”
Mrs. Wormwood is equally negligent of Matilda’s needs, instead preferring ballroom-dancing competitions to motherhood. Yet, because she resides as absurdly as she does in her own over-the-top reality, we don’t necessarily blame her for being so uninformed; we just happily watch her as the entertainingly shrill trainwreck that she is. Janna Cardia mightily succeeds in imbuing her Mrs. Wormwood with a freneticism that resounds most stupendously in “Loud,” when she produces enough heat with John Paul Batista’s otherwordly sensual and flexible Rudolpho to singe the audience in the first few rows.
The last of the adversarial characters, Miss Trunchbull, is perhaps the most favorable to fans of “Matilda” for being characterized by an unbridled maliciousness matched only by her exaggerated presence and mannerisms. Clad in a militaristic dress from a bygone era, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper inspires dread and oodles of laughter, as he clenches his jaw, furrows his brow, glowers with his eyes, and saunters, with his arms nestled behind his back, in calculatingly evil fashion. Whether he is conveying Trunchbull’s celebratory remembrance of throwing “The Hammer,” while sashaying and criss-crossing a blue ribbon in the air, or conducting a Phys-Ed class from hell in “The Smell of Rebellion,” Mongiardo-Cooper realizes Trunchbull’s hysterical sadism with a stellar comic timing.
Offsetting this wickedness is Katie DeShan’s Miss Honey, the quintessentially sweet elementary school teacher with a heart of gold and much gratitude despite living in a shed. She is, however, beleaguered by a lack of assertiveness and a wretched past that gradually becomes clearer. With her evocative vocals, DeShan is excellent at communicating her character’s helplessness in “Pathetic.” That is, until Matilda’s fortitude gives Honey the courage and perspective she needs, fostering a friendship that blossoms tenderly. Another advocate of Matilda’s is the Jamaican librarian, Mrs. Phelps, portrayed with great sincerity by Deanna Anthony, who is hilarious as a spellbound listener of Matilda’s circus tale.
And as captivating as the principle performers are, the exceptional ensemble, comprised of equal-numbered adults and children, stand their ground just as impressively. Standouts include Ben Carroll as the bluesy-crooning Doctor and the earnest Escape Artist; J.B. Bauersfeld as the sensible Russian mafia leader, Sergei; Olivia Zenetzis, who shows off her polished talent as Lavender, Matilda’s best friend; Taylor Lynda Thomas as Amanda, whose pigtails are cleverly used in punishing fashion by Trunchbull; Marcello Silva, who is a terrific singer and champion of chocolate-cake eating as Bruce; the charming Drew Rosen as Nigel; as well as Joah Ditto, Josh Golombek, Carolyn Lupin, and Tyler Marie Watkins, who give “School Song,” “The Chokey Chant,” and “Revolting Children” a little extra verve and intensity.
To sum it all up, 5-Star Theatricals’ “Matilda the Musical” must be seen to be believed as a legitimately five-star presentation that transcends most of Ventura County’s productions in recent memory. As gripping and heartfelt as Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” is, this show takes it to another level, winning over the hearts of its audience members who will be talking about the gifted performers for a long time.
For more information about 5-Star Theatricals’ “Matilda the Musical,” please visit 5startheatricals.com