Review: Village Theatre’s ‘Matilda the Musical’ filled with life lessons

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The cast of Matilda. (Photos by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

The Village Theatre’s Matilda the Musical just opened at the Everett Performing Arts Center. On opening night, there wasn’t a seat to be had. This musical adaptation is the work of Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin.

It’s actually Village Theatre’s second opening for Matilda — it ran for nearly two months in Issaquah before moving north.

I bumped into artistic director Jerry Dixon before the show. “I don’t know of any other theatre company that has two opening nights on two main stages,” said Dixon.

Holly Reichert (Matilda) and Marissa Ryder (Miss Honey).

I put in a pitch to have Village Theatre open first in Everett sometime. “We’ve considered that. The reason it doesn’t happen is our shop is right next to the Issaquah stage. Everything gets built down there. It’s really expensive to move the set and all the equipment,” said Dixon.

That makes a lot of sense. It’s hard for me to imagine the logistics and expense involved with even a single move.

As for the play itself, if you ever find hope in short supply, just take a close look at some of the young people around you.

The kids in the cast of Matilda have done something quite amazing. When you’re 10 or 12 and you commit nine months to a play, you’ve just spent a sizable fraction of your life on a project. It’s a major commitment, but in this case, the outcome is remarkable.

Nava Ruthfield (Matilda) and Shaunyce Omar (Mrs. Phelps) in a photo taken at an (almost) unrecognizable Spangler Book Exchange.

Village Theatre often splits a youthful leading role between two actors. On the evening I attended, Nava Ruthfield, (who put in an excellent performance as young Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird not too long ago with the Driftwood Players) held down the title role. Holly Reichert plays Matilda in alternating performances. The two Matildas have become good friends.

I never cease to be amazed by these young actors. In addition to being skilled at her craft, Ruthfield seems to be a very perceptive young woman. When asked what she hoped the audience would gain from the performance, she replied, ‘There’s a Roald Dahl quote ‘Inside all of us we have the power to change the world.’ It’s one of my favorite quotes. I hope the audience takes away that feeling.”

That’s one of the beautiful things about this play. As director and choreographer Kathryn Van Meter put it — there’s something powerful in putting “a young female protagonist at the head of a story about empowerment and the fight for justice.”

The cast of Matilda.

The story is set in part at “Crunchem Hall” where life is quite bleak, especially for the youngest students.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Roald Dahl himself had not been a victim of bullying and abuse at the hand of an intimidating headmistress or headmaster. I discovered this comment, and it was as I expected:

“All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely… I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it,” Dahl once said.

But unlike the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull in Matilda (who received her well-deserved comeuppance in the play), one of Dahl’s tormentors became the Archbishop of Canterbury and crowned Queen Elizabeth II.

I guess that’s why it’s called fiction. But really, this just serves to reinforce one of the principle messages in Matilda. Life may not be fair, but we don’t have to grin and bear it. You may be little, but you can do a lot!

Nava Ruthfield (Matilda), Ivanna Wei (Acrobat), and Shaunyce Omar (Mrs. Phelps).

Scenic designer Matthew Smucker, master scenic artist Julia B. Franz, and anyone else involved in the design of the sets have my sincerest admiration. The library, the opening backdrop and classroom scenes are works of art. The swing scene and acrobat sequence were also exceptional.

Evil prevailed a little longer than I would have liked, but with so many wonderfully villainous characters in need of development, I suppose it couldn’t be helped.

There were the parents — Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood — so incredibly self absorbed and narcissistic, so devoid of redeeming qualities I couldn’t wait to see what Dahl had in store for them. Truly one of the greatest antagonists ever created by Dahl however, was the sadistic and maniacal headmistress Miss Trunchbull, played magnificently by Basil Harris. It was deeply satisfying when justice was finally meted out in the closing moments.

Matilda plays through Feb. 3. Good seats are still available at www.villagetheatre.org/everett/index.php.

— By James Spangler

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