Hoopla

Magical 'Matilda' musical opens Friday at Theatre Cedar Rapids

Life is far from a bowl of cherries at Crunchem Hall Primary School in “Matilda the Musical,” onstage at Theatre Cedar Rapids from Friday (11/15) to Dec. 15. In settings inspired by author Roald Dahl’s home village northwest of London, mischief is always afoot there for students Bruce (Brady Evers, from left), Matilda (Sam Shannon), Alice (Joelle Rivera), Lavender (Blake Kroemer), Hortensia, (Rhylee Larson) and Nigel (Niles Granfield).
Life is far from a bowl of cherries at Crunchem Hall Primary School in “Matilda the Musical,” onstage at Theatre Cedar Rapids from Friday (11/15) to Dec. 15. In settings inspired by author Roald Dahl’s home village northwest of London, mischief is always afoot there for students Bruce (Brady Evers, from left), Matilda (Sam Shannon), Alice (Joelle Rivera), Lavender (Blake Kroemer), Hortensia, (Rhylee Larson) and Nigel (Niles Granfield).
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CEDAR RAPIDS — While “Matilda the Musical” isn’t dripping in Christmas cheer, it is dripping with spirits naughty and nice.

Theatre Cedar Rapids is one of the first community theaters in the country invited to produce the show, which won five Tony Awards in 2013, including Best Book, and London’s Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 2012, along with a host of other awards on both sides of the Atlantic.

The story has plenty of darkness, but director Angie Toomsen and company are finding plenty of light, as well.

“We’re trying to make this as playful and visually delightful as possible, because this is our holiday slot and it’s not a holiday-themed show,” Toomsen said, “but it is a show that is about children.”

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s book, the play is full of magic and fantasy, set mostly in Crunchem Hall, an English village elementary school ruled with an iron fist by evil head mistress Miss Agatha Trunchbull. The stuff of nightmares, she’s cruel to all the pupils, especially newcomer Matilda, a 5-year-old genius with supernatural powers. Fortunately, sweet Miss Honey provides the bright spot in Matilda’s world, where the child’s parents are pretty awful, too.

“It’s kind of magic,” Toomsen said.

“And then about finding some inner spirit in yourself, with some resiliency,” added Aaron Murphy, who is stepping into plenty of padding and prosthetics to tackle the deliciously devious role of Miss Trunchbull.

Music Theatre International, which holds the production rights to the show, invited Theatre Cedar Rapids to stage the award-winning musical.

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“TCR is one of the seven largest community theaters in the United States. And the (seating) capacity of our house (and) the length of our runs makes us attractive for early offers like this,” Toomsen said.

“We have the talent and capacity to handle it,” Murphy added.

“And they know we can produce it,” Toomsen said. “But that is not something we take for granted. We don’t think we’re better than everyone else because of this. We actually just really bask in gratitude in creating this opportunity for the performers in this area and for the audience in this area when that happens.”

Cast, crew, directors and designers are having a blast finding the brightness in a dark tale where children are punished by being tossed in the Chokey, a closet filled with sharp objects.

“Our team has had such a fun time,” Toomsen said. “We’re like big kids putting this show together, because we have tried to come up with our own creative ways of staging things so our show is unique.

“We have giant swings that the kids swing on. That’s just one of several things that I think are really unique to see on stage. We’ve got playground equipment — real playground equipment — and we have to have some magic tricks that have to happen, which I won’t give away, but they’re kind of unique.”

No one’s having more fun than the lead actors.

Sam Shannon, 10, of Marion, a fourth-grader at Echo Hill Elementary, is bringing lots of theatrical experience from Giving Tree Theater in Marion to her first time in the TCR main stage spotlight playing Matilda.

Murphy, 35, an interior decorator from Cedar Rapids, brings some experience with wickedness and wit, after playing a horrible adult man/child in “Hay Fever” at Brucemore in 2014; and at TCR, lead puppeteer in the adult-themed musical “Avenue Q” in 2016; the man who killed James Garfield “Assassins” in 2017; and pretentious phonetics professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” in 2018.

“Good old Miss Trunchbull — she is a witchy woman,” Murphy said. “She is a hammer-throwing champion in the U.K. and runs her school much like a boot camp — just a terror camp, really. She is very physical with the children. We don’t see that, but it’s sort of implied, and she’s very verbally abusive, and to Miss Honey, which is revealed later that they have a relation there.”

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The stage production differs from the 1996 movie starring Mara Wilson as Matilda, and Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as her parents. The movie, in turn, differs from the book.

“The play’s based more off the book,” Shannon said. “It’s about a girl. Her name’s Matilda. She’s really smart, like way smarter than a normal 5-year-old would be. And her parents and brother, they love the television. They think it’s better than books and they treat her like she’s dumb, like they treat her not good at all.”

But Matilda is not only off-the-charts smart, she can move objects with her mind, which comes in handy as she’s dealing with all the horrible situations at school. She finds refuge in Miss Honey, played by Ferin Bergen, who also gets to bring her gymnastics skills to the stage.

Turning to Shannon, Murphy added, “We get a lot of Miss Honey’s back story told through Matilda as she is either dreaming of it or telling these stories that you see in your mind. And they happen to be a really beautiful story that takes place in sort of a flashback throughout the entire show, and you end up telling the whole story within the musical.

“It’s really quite interesting to watch” he said, “as that part is nowhere in the movie. It’s just completely removed.”

Shannon, who’s quick to point out that her parents and school experiences are nothing like Matilda’s, said the role is “really thrilling to do.”

“You have to memorize the lines, you have to memorize the songs, you have to try on costumes, you have to learn choreography in a specific time period. It’s just really fun,” she said.

She also thinks Matilda doesn’t really mind her situation that much, because she knows she’s going to rise above it someday.

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Murphy initially planned to keep his distance from the children in the cast, since his character is so mean, but that notion didn’t last long.

“I’ve had such a wonderful time getting to know these kids,” he said. “And I was going to approach it where I was going to be just really removed from the cast and just not talk to any of the kids and try and be just this isolated person that Trunchbull is.

“But these kids are so cool, and I say just the most awful things to them and treat them so terribly, that they needed to know that there was safety in that. And I think that’s just the coolest part for an actor who has to play someone so terrible, yet can have these wonderful relationships in the cast.”

“They love Aaron, and I think that’s an ideal,” Toomsen said, “because Aaron is so funny in this role. As (Trunchbull) is saying all these horrible things, it’s just so delicious and delightful. But then underneath it all, this group of kids knows that they can trust Aaron, and he’s a wonderful role model of behavior in real life.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

GET OUT!

• What: “Matilda the Musical”

• Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: Friday (11/15) to Dec. 15; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday

• Tickets: $22 to $55; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org

• Extra: ASL interpretation 2:30 p.m. Dec. 8, contact Box Office for reserved section seating

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