Local Arts

Review: ‘Matilda’ at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte pulls off complicated moves

Allie Joseph as Matilda.
Allie Joseph as Matilda.

The first time I saw “Matilda: The Musical,” I interpreted it as a battle between plucky children and doltish grown-ups who misunderstood and oppressed them. But after seeing it Friday at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, I realized there aren’t any grownups in it at all.

Yes, there are big people played by adults, but none have matured en route to middle age. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s parents, obsess over money and competitive dancing, respectively. Miss Honey, her beloved elementary school teacher, remains pathologically shy and unable to defend her students. Sadistic Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress at the school, is a paranoid, emotionally stunted bully who constantly seeks weakness in others.

Other than a librarian left agog by Matilda’s engrossing stories, nobody has become a fully functioning adult. So Roald Dahl’s novel and the musical adapted from it aren’t just stories of virtue triumphant via the gifted heroine, they’re warnings to every child to avoid “growing up” in the same fashion.

Director Adam Burke and choreographer Ron Chisholm faithfully recreate (with minor variations) the dark feeling of the national tour that came to Charlotte in February 2016, and the cast – much of it young talent from CTC’s theater programs – pulls off complicated moves while singing clearly. (Well, most of the time, but the national tour had the same problem.)

Set designer Hannah Crowell drops us down in a building like a Dickensian factory, which may or may not be a comment about modern education: Gears interlock, levers shift back and forth, light travels along paths like steam escaping through pipes. When Miss Trunchbull reveals subterranean prisons known as “chokeys,” they seem to lead straight to Hades.

The story follows Matilda, played by Allie Joseph with intelligence and fire, from birth to age 5. She overcomes sexism (her dad wanted a boy), ignorance – no one else in her family cracks a book – and bullying, in a mild form by older schoolmates and a severe one by the psychotic Trunchbull (Tommy Foster, romping malevolently in what has always been a drag role).

Dahl empathizes with exceptionally gifted children more here than in any of his other novels. Nobody knows what to do with the phenomenally smart Matilda. Even Miss Honey can only encourage her vaguely and offer emotional support, and she needs Matilda’s assistance just as much. Neither Dahl nor Dennis Kelly, who won a Tony for the book of the musical, offer a solution: Matilda just has to keep teaching herself everything from literature to languages.

The musical emphasizes the satiric sting of Dahl’s book, and gibes about dense adults have even more bite than they did when the show premiered in London seven years ago.

“Content has never been less important. You have got to be loud!” Mrs. Wormwood declares. Later, she tells Matilda, “Looks matter more than books.” Miss Trunchbull informs students that “In this world, there are two types of human beings: the winners and the losers. If I play by the rules, and I do not win, then something is wrong.” Any likeness to current U.S. political leadership, though unintentional, is nonetheless trenchant.

“Matilda: The Musical”

WHEN: Through Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.

TICKETS: $15-$30.

DETAILS: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.