Not since Tony nominee Brad Oscar played pigeon-training Nazi Franz Liebkind in “The Producers” has a petit fascist inspired as much laughter as Emily Gunyou Halaas is getting over at Children’s Theatre Company.
Gunyou Halaas depicts whip-cracking principal Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda the Musical,” which opened last week in Minneapolis. If Peter Brosius’ production is both laugh-out-loud funny and heartwarming, a big part of the credit goes to Gunyou Halaas, who delivers a tour de force performance as she marches around in military fatigues that have a samurai flourish.
Her Miss Trunchbull casts a comically evil shadow over the students she calls “maggots.” She also upbraids their teacher, Miss Honey (played by China Brickey in a gorgeously nuanced performance), for being too nice. But this arch-villain’s coldness and bluster are not enough to hide her ugly history. And unlike Liebkind’s cooing pigeons, Miss Honey’s students, led by the telekinetic heroine Matilda (Sofia Salmela), suss out Trunchbull’s secrets and discover their voices just in time to hound the adult bully out of their lives.
Composer and librettist Tim Minchin created the atmospheric songs for Dennis Kelly’s stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel. The show opened on Broadway in 2013, winning five Tonys and running for four years, even as a it sent a splashy tour across the country. It is now being licensed to companies like CTC to do their own versions.
And what a version it is. From Scott Davis’ book-themed set to Linda Talcott Lee’s gaudy choreography, from Jorge Cousineau’s crisply expressive projections to Andrew Fleser’s ebullient orchestra, CTC has gone all out for “Matilda.” The villains and scoundrels (all of them adults) are broad and cartoonlike. In addition to Miss Trunchbull, the baddies include Matilda’s parents, the Wormwoods (the criminally witty duo of Dean Holt and Autumn Ness). The dad, a used-car salesman with slippery values, wears a puke-y suit that looks like it’s made from ’70s upholstery (costume designer Helen Q. Huang went there for the win).
Mrs. Wormwood, a loud chewer of gum who is into salsa dancing, wears leopard prints and big shades. Of course, the Wormwoods should be arrested by more than the fashion police. They also are bad parents with no time for their daughter, whom the dad calls “boy.”
There also are touchingly human characters, chief among them the rebelling students. And Miss Honey, whose own story of neglect is similar to Matilda’s, and who shows the kid some much-needed warmth. The librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Alexcia Thompson), also plays the important role of listening to Matilda as she learns the power of story and imagination.
On opening night, Matilda was played by Salmela, an 11-year-old phenom from Duluth. Fiercely talented with charisma for days, she never flinched. She owned the role, the stage and the theater, performing with power and panache. (Salmela is one of three talented youngsters who take turns in the title role; Audrey Mojica and Lillian Hochman are the other two.)
Salmela led a huge cast that includes Mrs. Wormwood’s dance teacher Rudolpho (Tony Vierling in glistening spandex), Russian gangster Sergei (a shady Reed Sigmund), fellow student Bruce (expressive and antic Alejandro Vega) and a bereaved Escapologist (serene and thoughtful Dwight Leslie).
Their ensemble work makes this “Matilda” a breeze, even at 2½ hours with intermission (an unusually long sit for youngsters). The children in the audience were engaged on opening night, with peals of laughter as the kids onstage rose to power and the adults saw their comeuppance. That’s a story for the ages, one that “Matilda” celebrates with delectable relish.