Matilda the Musical review

MATILDA THE MUSICAL

21 February – 17 March
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

One of the most iconic heroines in children’s literature took the West End and Broadway by storm, and now she brings her brand of adorable, inspiring defiance to the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.

Matilda the Musical is based on the beloved 1988 Roald Dahl book of the same name, which was adapted into a film directed by Danny DeVito in 1996. This musical features a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, with original direction by Matthew Warchus. The production was developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and went on to win five Tony Awards and seven Olivier Awards. Matilda the Musical is currently tied with Hamilton as the musical with the most Olivier Awards.

The title character is a preternaturally gifted five-year-old whose talents go unnoticed by her callous and shallow parents, the Wormwoods (Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor). Matilda finds solace in the library, where she regales the librarian Mrs Phelps (Nompumelelo Mayiyane) with stories.

Matilda begins primary school at Crunchem Hall. The school is presided over with an iron fist by the sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Ryan de Villiers), a child-hating former Olympic hammer-throwing champion. Matilda’s kindly form teacher Miss Honey (Bethany Dickson) recognises that Matilda is way ahead of her peers and wants to move her up to the Primary 5 class, something Trunchbull vehemently opposes. Matilda soon galvanises her fellow students and Miss Honey, leading a revolt in the school against Miss Trunchbull, unearthing startling secrets in the process.

The production that has arrived in Singapore is the International Tour, which originated in October 2018 in South Africa. The distinctive set design by Rob Howell, who also designed the costumes, has been retained and ingeniously adapted to tour. The set has a Scrabble tile motif, and the sometimes-messy, sometimes-garish, always-charming look fits into the show’s concept of a five-year-old’s view of the world. The show also features illusions designed by Paul Kieve, and a signature number in which actors on swings fly out over the audience.

On the surface, Matilda the Musical looks silly and over-the-top, but that exterior belies great depth and poignancy. This is a story about a misunderstood, unloved girl who stands up for herself, takes on the world and along the way, finally finds an adult or two who cares. The musical’s broad, sometimes rude humour and loud, over-the-top performances are very much in line with author Dahl’s sensibilities. The Crunchem Hall crest is a drawing of a child being hit over the head with a hammer – Dahl’s books often feature children facing off against grotesque adults, stepping into a cruel world and shaping it for themselves. Matilda is perhaps the best example of this in his bibliography.

The show’s signature songs “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up” convey a child’s defiance and wistfulness in elegant, honest terms. Minchin’s lyrics burst with Dahl-ian wit: Trunchbull sneeringly says of “the odour of rebellion”, “This headmistress/Finds this foul odifer-ous-ness/Wholly olfactorily insulting.” There are moments when the music plays up the chaos that surrounds Matilda, and other moments that are lyrical and quiet – the transition between these modes never feels abrupt or jarring.

The title role is shared by four young actors: Singaporean Sofia Poston, who played the role at our performance, and South Africans Lilla Fleischmann, Morgan Santo and Kitty Harris.

It must be incredibly daunting for anyone to get onstage in front of an audience of 2000 and perform, let alone for a nine-year-old. The role of Matilda is a demanding one that Poston tackles with remarkable confidence. She strikes the balance of portraying a character who’s precocious without being obnoxious. Of the four actresses playing Matilda, she is the youngest and physically the smallest – this enhances the ‘David and Goliath’ factor intended when Matilda faces off against Trunchbull. A tiny powerhouse who’s cute but not twee and who believably conveys an unbreakable fighting spirit, Poston has more than done Singapore proud as the country’s representative in the lead cast.

Ryan de Villiers is a magnificent Trunchbull, clearly relishing every second he’s onstage. The character’s costume creates a comically nightmarish figure that de Villiers captures with remarkable physicality. The role is typically played in drag, because casting a tall, physically-imposing man enhances the afore-mentioned David and Goliath element. De Villiers must perform gymnastics in his restrictive costume, which he does with delicious aplomb. Trunchbull is by design a cartoonish villain, but de Villiers still makes her utterly threatening and finds whatever thin sliver of soul is buried deep within her.

Bethany Dickson, who has been the leading lady in South African and touring productions of musicals like The Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain and Grease, plays Miss Honey with the gentleness and timidity one expects from the character. The bond between Miss Honey and Matilda is a key emotional component to the show, and one that Dickson must develop with four different young actresses. Miss Honey is the nurturing presence who finds her own voice when Matilda enters her classroom and her life, and some of the musical’s most touching moments are between Miss Honey and Matilda.

Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor ham it way up as the Wormwoods, and are complemented by Kent Jeycocke as Mrs Wormwood’s dance partner Rudolpho. These are parents who are afraid that their child is too intelligent and reads too much – while many Singaporeans can relate to the ‘school is prison’ element of the show, this seems a touch more absurd. It’s all a piece of the musical’s heightened nature, and Jubber, Taylor and Jeycocke prove adept at physical comedy.

The standouts among Matilda’s schoolmates include Jack Fokkens as Bruce, Taylor Salgado as Lavender and Joshua LeClair as Nigel. At our performance, Amanda was played by Kitty Harris, one of the other Matildas, meaning each Matilda must also learn the part of Amanda. This reviewer was a touch dispirited to see the “floss” dance popularised by Backpack Kid/Russell Horning and later featured in the online game Fortnite make an appearance, but perhaps that’s just down to this reviewer’s own crustiness and resentment.

Matilda the Musical is a triumph as an adaptation and as a standalone piece of musical theatre that serves as a showcase for incredibly talented performers. It’s funny, moving and has its share of gasp-inducing set-pieces. It’s also a great opportunity for families to have post-show discussions about education, what it means to raise and nurture children, and growing up. It’s youth in revolt in the most enchanting way.

Jedd Jong

Photos courtesy of BASE Entertainment

Top of the Class: Matilda the Musical press call

TOP OF THE CLASS

Matilda the Musical takes Singapore audiences back to school

By Jedd Jong

A precocious young hero who starts a revolution against the cruel principal of her prison-like school: it’s a story that ignites something in every child. Matilda began life as a novel by celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl, first published in 1988. It was adapted into a radio play, a 1996 film directed by Danny Devito, and a blockbuster 2010 musical.

Matilda the Musical is one of the most-acclaimed stage productions in recent memory, winning seven Olivier awards in 2012 – the most ever won for a single production at the time. The show also won five Tony Awards, including best book.

Featuring a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, Matilda is a show that has captured the imagination of theatregoers and made many misty-eyed. The musical was originally directed by Matthew Warchus, developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and first staged at the RSC’s home, the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The show then moved to the Cambridge Theatre on the West End where it is still playing. A Broadway production ran from 2013 to 2017.

In addition to Roald Dahl’s enduring characters and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics, audiences can also look forward to acrobatics, set pieces including a signature moment involving swings, and mystifying illusions designed by Paul Kieve.

The titular character is a five-year-old with a penchant for reading, a curiosity about the world and a mysterious, possibly supernatural power. Matilda is neglected by her shallow parents the Wormwoods, who dismiss her because she’s a girl. She finds solace in the library, enchanting the librarian Mrs Phelps with her talent for storytelling.

Matilda is enrolled in Crunchem Hall Primary School, where she impresses the kind teacher Miss Honey. However, Matilda earns the ire of the cruel headteacher Miss Trunchbull. Though she is small in stature, Matilda finds a power within her, galvanising the school in an uprising against the treacherous Trunchbull.

At the press call, the numbers “Naughty”, “When I Grow Up” and “Revolting Children” were performed for the media.

“This is exactly how I would expect the Royal Shakespeare Company to create a musical,” resident director Natalie Gilhome said. It’s her job to ensure the production stays true to the vision of original director Warchus. “It’s so intelligent, it’s so multi-layered so that adults get as much out of it as children get,” Gilhome enthused. “It’s so beautifully crafted as a piece that I think that’s a lot to do with the history of the RSC and the creatives that put it together.”

From left: Lilla Fleischman, Morgan Santo, Kitty Harris and Sofia Poston

This production, presented by BASE Entertainment and Lunchbox Theatrical, is the International Tour which was first staged in South Africa in October 2018. The title role is shared by four girls: Singaporean Sofia Poston and South Africans Lilla Fleischmann, Morgan Santo, and Kitty Harris, who are nine, 14, 11 and 10-years-old respectively.

Ryan de Villiers stars opposite the girls playing Matilda as Trunchbull, who lives to torment children and who focuses her resentment on the new star pupil. The role is typically played in drag, with taller, physically-imposing actors cast to emphasise the David-and-Goliath dynamic between Matilda and Trunchbull.

“I think it’s so much fun to play the bad guy,” de Villiers said. “I don’t think I’m the bad guy in real life, so getting to play someone who’s so opposite to who I am is so much fun.”

The character’s costume, which also includes a hunchback prosthetic, helps de Villiers get into Trunchbull’s headspace and plays up the character’s severity. “Everything is quite restrictive, not so that I can’t sing or speak, but it definitely helps with the physicality,” de Villiers explained.

Part of Trunchbull’s back-story is that she was an Olympic-level hammer thrower. She exhibits sheer physical strength, coupled with an unyielding demeanour. “Her uprightness and rigidity are very important to the character,” de Villiers said. “Posture-wise, she has really, really good posture, something I don’t always have. The way she walks is very calculated as well – everything about her is very calculated, until of course she loses it, then things go a little bit haywire,” de Villiers added with a smile.

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From left: Bethany Dickson (Miss Honey), Nompumelelo Mayiyane (Mrs Phelps) and Ryan de Villiers (Miss Trunchbull)

Thankfully, de Villiers does not agree with his character’s disciplinary methods. De Villiers stated that teachers should never resort to physical violence when dealing with their charges, adding “Even berating a child or speaking down at a child, it’s not good for their self-confidence and how they might end up in the future. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to find nice ways to deal with children.”

Trunchbull hates Matilda, but de Villiers has nothing admiration for his young co-stars. “They are all so professional, so wonderful, so talented, so it’s really inspiring to watch them onstage,” he enthused. De Villiers admitted that he does enjoying playing the ridiculous cruelty that Trunchbull enacts towards Matilda and the other students, saying “It really is a lot of fun on stage shouting at them and seeing their reactions.”

Musical director Louis Zurnamer was last in Singapore with the touring production of Evita. Describing the music of Matilda, Zurnamer said that unlike the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Minchin’s compositions are “almost deliciously devoid of very long lyrical melodic lines.” Zurnamer described the incidental music by orchestrator Chris Nightingale as “something like Amélie, like French film music.”

Zurnamer leads the eight-piece band which plays live in the orchestra pit during every performance. “We have a cello and a bass clarinet, instruments that bring a very specific colour to the show as well,” Zurnamer revealed, describing that colour as a darkness and maturity to the story, told from a child’s perspective. Speaking about how the music of Matilda stands out in the landscape of classic and contemporary musicals, Zurnamer said “It doesn’t sound like Jason Robert Brown or Stephen Schwartz, it’s a new language and it’s so divine. My toes curl with delight every time I hear it, it’s so lovely.”

If there’s one physical part of the set that gets a lot of attention, it’s the swings suspended from the ceiling. One of the major challenges in developing a touring version of Matilda was in engineering swings that would work the way the swings in the West End production do, but which can also easily be installed and removed in theatres.

The swings feature in the wistful number “When I Grow Up”. “It’s the one number where you get to see this beautiful fantasy,” Gilholme said, adding that “there’s a purity that sometimes we lose when we grow up, so it’s so nice to see that childlike perception of what life is as adults.”

“The swings are probably one of the most impressive parts of the show, and something that we take very seriously as we have kids on them and cast members flying out over the audience,” stage manager Peter Barnett said during our backstage tour. “We double-check and triple-check these and run them every single day,” he said, adding that there are hidden safety measures in the swing seats.

Audiences can enter the foreboding gates of Crunchem Hall and witness Matilda’s rousing struggle for justice when they watch Matilda the Musical, which runs from 21 February to 17 March at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets start from $68 (excluding $4 booking fee). Please visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/entertainment/shows/matilda-the-musical.html for more information and to purchase tickets.

Photos by Jedd Jong