CEDAR RAPIDS — The giggle meter hopped off the charts at Friday night’s performance of “Matilda the Musical,” onstage at Theatre Cedar Rapids through Dec. 15.
Kids love seeing adults as silly bad guys, and Roald Dahl’s magical tale of a kindergarten genius leaping light years beyond the adult obstacles in her way sent the children around me squealing and kicking their feet with glee.
The production is bright and lively, with kids bouncing around the playground equipment and classroom settings, dancing under candy-colored lights — all springing out of designer S. Benjamin Farrar’s wild imagination. Joni Sackett’s costume designs are especially outrageously hilarious on Matilda’s horridly self-centered parents (Carrie Houchins-Witt and Aaron Pozdol) and the hideous headmistress at her British village school, Miss Agatha Trunchbull (the especially outrageously hideous Aaron Murphy).
That’s right, a full-grown man looms large over the students, as the most feared woman in their world. And Murphy relishes the role, slathering it with sneers, glares, crooked fingers, moles and a bodice stuffed front and back, giving him a most hilariously hideous profile. Add in a crackly, cackly voice, and he is the reason everything plays so well in a show where the British accents across so many characters get in the way of understanding the dialogue.
I was afraid it was just me — sitting too far down front to hear the right mix of music and microphones, but at intermission, the moms wrangling the kids around me said the same thing. They couldn’t understand the dialogue. It’s especially hard to hear when the music is playing under the spoken words.
But the show is bouncy and fun, with lots of visual punch.
It’s the story of a precocious little girl, Matilda Wormwood (the adorable Sam Shannon), who is pretty much ignored at home. Preferring to read over watching the telly, like her dimwitted big brother (Noah Kanetomo-Blevins), her parents just don’t know what to make of her, so they mock her. Her mother resents that birthing Matilda knocked her out of her amateur ballroom dance competition, and her father calls her “boy.”
So 5-year-old Matilda takes refuge in the town library, where she tells librarian Mrs. Phelps (Courtney Gevaert) elaborate stories about an acrobat (Ferin Bergen) and escapologist (Andrew Boddicker), whose wish to be parents has sadly eluded them. The stories grow more exciting and grave throughout the show, and Bergen gets to dazzle the audience as she slithers her way through an aerial hoop spinning atop a stationary pole.
In a key plot twist, Bergen also portrays Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey. A character as sweet as her name, she surrounds Matilda with much-needed solace and sanctuary.
With a headmistress so scary and awful, the rest of the students take every opportunity to be naughty and pull pranks on Miss Trunchbull, even though their punishment means a timeout in the dreaded Chokey, a claustrophobic cupboard filled with sharp objects. Trunchbull, an Olympic champion hammer thrower, calls the children “maggots,” and takes sheer delight in making them her new targets. Murphy romps through every deed and misdeed with Olympic exultation. The role was written for a man, and the songs fit snugly in his musical and dramatizing range.
The other adults wrap themselves in the cartoon spirit of the show, as well. Houchins-Witt is cunning and shrill as she dances through her sequined lowlife, glued to the hip of her smarmy teacher/partner, Rudolpho (Miguel Davidson). Pozdol is utterly unctuous as Matilda’s sleazy car-salesman father, who spends most of the show trying to swindle his shiny Russian foils into buying old beaters at top dollar.
Among the many young actors, Shannon, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Echo Hill Elementary in Marion, is delightful in the title role, belting out her songs and character with gusto. She also affects a proper British accent, but that can be hard to understand, especially when she’s spinning her tales of the acrobat and escapologist.
The other children in the show are delightful, too, obviously relishing their chance to be naughty and rebellious. Erin Helm’s angular, supercharged choreography turns their big production numbers, “The Smell of Rebellion” and “Revolting Children,” into showstoppers.
The production is well-suited for the coveted holiday slot, even though “Christmas” never enters the picture — except for the naughty and nice aspects sprinkled liberally throughout. It’s a sure bet Miss Trunchbull and the wormy Wormwoods would find a lump of coal in their stockings this year and every year.
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• What: “Matilda the Musical”
• Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: 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
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• Extra: ASL interpretation 2:30 p.m. Dec. 8, contact Box Office for reserved section seating