Author Roald Dahl is known for creating wildly eccentric children’s stories with dark humor, bizarre plots and reprehensible adult characters. That is on full display in the musical version of his 1988 book “Matilda” that opened on Thursday night at the Playhouse Family Theatre.
The show tells the story of precocious bookworm Matilda, who reads Dickens and Dostoevsky at age 5. (Think of Matilda as an amalgam of Annie, Harry Potter, Belle, Cinderella and a female X-factor character).
Woefully misunderstood, Matilda is raised by ridiculously oblivious parents and terrorized by the headmistress from hell, Agatha Trunchbull.
The role of Matilda is double cast with Cadence Graber and Lussi Salmela playing the part in alternating performances. Salmela, who played the role opening night, had Matilda’s pluck, resoluteness and spunkiness well in control, punctuated with the iconic “hands on the hips” Matilda pose.
While the role calls for a bit more humor and vulnerability, Salmela’s character and her vocals built throughout the show, culminating in her strong Act II solo “Quiet.”
Any production of “Matilda” rises and falls on the gender bending role of Trunchbull. Evan Kelly’s tour-de-force performance of the Olympian hammer- and child-tossing villainess is nothing short of brilliant.
Controlled, yet completely intimidating, hilarious, yet undeniably frightening, Kelly is at the top of his game here. He is clearly “queen” of his domain in Crunchem Hall, where his character lives by the motto “Bambinatum Est Magitum,” translated “Children are Maggots.”
Kelly also has powerhouse vocals, and in an incredibly fast paced “rap-style” section in “The Smell of Rebellion,” nails every last syllable with aplomb.
Playing the diametrically opposed character of the sweet, empathetic and aptly named Miss Honey, Kendra Carlson has some lovely and touching vocal moments, particularly in the standouts “This Little Girl” and “My House.”
In supporting roles, Bryan Burns and Sara Marie Sorenson are delightfully over-the-top as the callous and clueless Wormwoods, Matilda’s parents.
One of the strongest vocal moments of the evening came in the opening solo for “Revolting Children,” when Cate Peterson belted her little heart out. She is one to watch for, in what undoubtedly will be many larger roles to come.
The children and teenagers in the cast were obviously just waiting to let loose with “Revolting Children” at show’s end, the number that is clearly a pint-sized version of the musical anthem in “Spring Awakening,” “The Bitch of Living.”
As they belt, “We are revolting children / living in revolting times,” the younger members of the cast fill the stage and the house aisles with a strong company sound and an infectious energy.
Director and choreographer Amber Burns had everyone, from her tiniest cast members up to the towering Kelly, keeping up the pace, faithfully telling the beloved story and entertaining both the adults and children in the audience.
While meant to be a story for kids, Dahl’s dark vision still reverberates with the theme of voiceless children who search for a way to fight bullying and cruelty, making the show crushingly timely.
If you go
What: “Matilda the Musical”
Where: Playhouse Family Theatre (at the Depot), 506 W. Michigan St.
When: Fridays at 7 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 22.
Tickets: $15-17 at 218-733-7555 and duluthplayhouse.org.
Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews theater for the News Tribune.