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‘Revolting Children’: SAYT’s ‘Matilda’ is revolutionary

The “Revolting Children” in SAYT’s production of “Matilda” are shown. (Photo by Catherine Hardenberg)

“Even if you’re little, you can do a lot!” This is certainly true of the performers of Superior Arts Youth Theater’s “Matilda,” which opens tonight and runs through Sunday at the Forest Roberts Theatre on the campus of Northern Michigan University.

Adapted by Dennis Kelly from Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, this Tony-winning musical features bouncy, energetic music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and is sure to steal the hearts of each and every audience member.

The plot sticks fairly close to that of the book: Matilda Wormwood, a sweet and exceptionally bright girl, loves to read but is shunned and berated by her cruel parents because of her intelligence. When she starts school, she finds a brief reprieve in the companionship of her classmates and especially her kind and lovable teacher, Miss Honey, who is amazed by Matilda’s cleverness.

However, Matilda, Miss Honey, and the rest of the children live in constant fear of the school’s evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. In a world full of bullies, it can be easy to lose hope … but Matilda is as courageous as she is smart, and she just might have a little magic up her sleeve.

As is always the case with SAYT’s productions, this cast is phenomenal. Comprised of nearly 70 performers, the entire group is fantastic, and I was most impressed by the little choices I noticed each of them making. Director Susan Candey has obviously done a lot with these actors; it was clear that every single one of them had a distinct character, and it made the show that much more enjoyable to watch. While I can’t name all of them here, they should each feel extremely proud of the work they’ve done.

Bruce Bogtrotter, portrayed by Evan Harma, is pictured.

Avonlea Kuhlman will break your heart and put it right back together again as the show’s leading lady, Matilda; she is inquisitive, sweet, and full of life onstage, and her performance is so hopeful and genuine you can’t help but believe every word she says.

Opposite her, Dawson Merrills is truly terrifying as “the Trunchbull.” His vocals are strong and he seems to tower over everyone, perfectly encapsulating the villainous headmistress. Miss Honey is played beautifully by Amanda Diddams, whose gorgeous voice and control lend a softness to the role that endears you to her immediately.

Rounding out the principal cast, Matilda’s parents (Kendyl Dahlstrom and Asa Naigus) are absolutely hilarious, both incredibly strong singers and great comedic performers; I could watch them all day.

Other performers to watch for include Evan Harma (Bruce Bogtrotter), who is so much fun as the chocolate-cake stealing class clown; Tatum Larson (Lavender), whose energy and charm are electric; Maren Doughty (Mrs. Phelps), whose gentleness as she listens intently to Matilda’s stories is incredibly touching; and Hunter Trepanier (Rudolpho), who will have you doubled over laughing as Mrs. Wormwood’s ballroom dance partner.

The ensemble is extremely strong as well. Vocally, every member of this cast is outstanding; Jeff Bruning has done exceptional work as music director, especially considering how very fast and difficult a lot of this music is. Not to worry — the pit orchestra (yay! an orchestra!) is expertly directed and conducted by Matt Mitchell, and the live music is definitely a highlight of the production.

Actors in SAYT’s production of “Matilda” portray Mr. Wormwood and Michael. (Photo by Elizabeth Dahlstrom)

Movement-wise, Skylar Taavola has done a wonderful job incorporating dance throughout the show, and the performers handle even the most complicated choreography like professionals.

Artistically, “Matilda” is brought together by brilliant design elements which give it a magical, colorful look. Steven McClain’s scenery is fluid and versatile, shifting easily between scenes and lending a storybook quality to the production that is very reminiscent of the novel. I particularly loved the life-size alphabet blocks. Properties by Hannah Carey are similarly playful, and the scenery and props are complimented well by Kim Hegmegee’s lighting, which is sharp and utilizes bright, fun colors to add a bit of whimsy to the show.

Suzanne Shahbazi’s costumes are, of course, a delight; from the matching school uniforms to the Trunchbull’s iconic getup, they are perfect down to each knee-high sock.

Makeup and hair by Brie Rantala and Nikki Allen, respectively, is precise, and sound design by Dan Zini is well-balanced. Such a talented group, and what a masterpiece of a show they’ve created together.

As one of my favorite stories from childhood, “Matilda” has always stood out to me as an exceedingly wonderful tale of compassion and love, and the stage version does not disappoint; the emphasis that this adaptation places on words and the ways in which we use them struck me as incredibly poignant and meaningful. There are stories within stories within stories, double meanings, and clever wordplay throughout the show that ask big questions, and it becomes clear very quickly that this isn’t just a show about a little girl who likes to read. It’s a show about bravery, about standing up for what’s right, and about taking charge of your own story. I can’t sing its praises highly enough — it’s a must-see for sure.

Performers playing Mrs. Wormwood and Rudolpho are shown in Superior Arts Youth Theater’s “Matilda,” which opens tonight. (Photo by Elizabeth Dahlstrom)

Performances will be held at the Forest Roberts Theatre at 7 p.m. today, Friday, and Saturday. At 1 p.m. Saturday, there is a sensory-friendly performance. And there’s 1 p.m. Sunday matinee performance. Tickets are available at NMU ticketing outlets and online at tickets.nmu.edu.

Editor’s note: Lilith Kontos is a local performer and stage manager.

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