WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Matilda isn’t your average 5-year-old child heroine. Sure, she’s a brilliant bookworm, but she doesn’t hesitate to use that brilliance to wreak havoc upon those that aren’t nice to her — particularly her parents and a rather nasty school headmistress.
Her story is delightfully told in the Tony Award-winning musical “Matilda the Musical,” based on the 1988 children’s novel by Roald Dahl, adapted by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.
Northern Stage has opened a simply delightful production of “Matilda the Musical” at the Barrette Center for the Arts that benefits from one of the most effervescent yet disciplined young theater troupes, ages 10 to 17, seen in Vermont. And at Friday’s preview performance, the adults weren’t half bad either.
The musical is the professional company’s annual holiday show playing with many matinees through Jan. 1. Unlike most holiday shows, this is neither a hackneyed Christmas tale nor a feel-good piece of saccharine that will bore all but the 5-year-olds. Northern Stage’s production is full of effervescent music, comedy, drama, nasty characters and revenge; in short, it’s fun for all ages — with, of course, a heart-warming ending.
Matilda is a precocious 5-year-old who can read beyond her years, and may even have a super power or two. The trouble is that her parents, a crooked used-car dealer father and a ditsy professional dancer mother, don’t want her or even like her. They are relieved to ship her off to school, where the overpowering headmistress Miss Trunchbull can show her a thing or two.
Matilda’s only hope is her sympathetic teacher Miss Honey — but she has her own troubles, too. How Matilda finally defeats Miss Trunchbull is the delicious tale full of twists and turns that became a Dahl trademark.
Although Northern Stage’s production proved thoroughly professional, its real stars were members of its student company, most of whom are participants in the company’s intense education programs.
Eric Love — who made his directing debut in 2015 at Montpelier’s Lost Nation Theater with Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” is now Northern Stage’s director of education and directed this show — split the 30 young actors participating into alternating casts of 15.
Bebhinn Knudsen, an eighth-grader at Hartford Middle School who was in Friday’s show, made her heroine real without an ounce of cuteness. In fact, her slyness was as delicious as her British accent was authentic. And she sang, again without any self-indulgence, naturally and beautifully. (Kylie, the other Matilda, seen in rehearsal, proved quite fine as well.)
Still, the thrill was watching the young performers singing and dancing with a discipline normally reserved for Broadway.
Again, the acting eschewed cuteness for authenticity and fun. Unlike the Broadway production, the older kids were played — refreshingly — by teen actors. And they all seemed to revel in Natalie Malotke’s charismatic choreography.
The adults, the same in all performances, are portrayed, as in most children’s literature, from the kids’ point of view. Thus, the only really dimensional character, Miss Honey, Matilda’s loving teacher, was given an endearing portrayal of depth by Alexis Sims. Contrasting was Tom Ford’s ridiculously funny, over-the-top performance as the overbearing Miss Trunchbull.
Matthew Patrick Quinn offered a comic book-like performance as the self-defeating Mr. Wormwood, particularly in his introduction to act two that “had them rolling in the aisles.” Lisa Karlin’s Mrs. Wormwood was as superficial as she was stylishly funny. She was contrasted by Danielle Cohen as Mrs. Phelps, the sympathetic librarian.
The physical production is simply lavish, with a beautiful and ever-changing set by David L. Arsenault, complemented by the attractive costuming of Aaron Patrick DeClerk, all extravagantly lit by Dan Kotlowitz. Music director Kevin White led the fine pit band.
Friday’s performance, like many previews, took a bit of time to come together technically. And, though there were a couple of rough moments, it took no time for the young folks to warm up. In fact, a compelling reason to see this production is to see just what rural kids can do in theater.
Still, the best reason to see Northern Stage’s “Matilda the Musical” is that it’s a great show for the whole family.