Slow Burn Scores Again In A Magical ‘Matilda’

If you haven’t read the Roald Dahl book that the musical Matilda is based on or seen its popular movie adaptation, you may be understandably wary of Slow Burn Theatre Company’s current production, since you may be tempted to write it off as a mere children’s show by virtue of its pint-sized protagonist. 

And though I’m not sure if Matilda is quite mature enough to be called a fully “adult” show either, it is one that offers plenty for folks of all ages to enjoy in a fantastical escapist adventure that attests to the solidifying power of stories, of human connection, and of standing up for what you believe in even against all odds. 

Aside from the more whimsical and far-fetched aspects of the plot and some slightly wearying digestive humor, I would classify the show as a slightly childish one mostly because of its lack of moral complexityMatilda’s world is one of clear-cut heroes and cartoonish villains, most of whom are relatively broadly drawn. 

Winningly played by a ten year old Saheli Khan, Matilda herself is one of the characters who does get to express herself with any complexity. Rejected by her shallow, Dursley-like parents for her earnestness and intelligence, Matilda makes for a tremendously likable main character, one who inherently appeals to the many of us who felt misunderstood during our own childhoods. 

Though Khan shone throughout the show, her stand-out moment clearly came in the Act 2 song “Quiet,” a reflective and emotional ballad that elicited audible “wow”s and gasps from the audience at the young actress’s obvious vocal prowess. 

In songs like “This Little Girl,” and “My House,” we also get a few revealing glimpses into the psyche of Matilda’s loving teacher Miss Honey, who, in standing up for her talented pupil, finally finds the nerve to fight through her anxiety and to challenge her abusive aunt, the demented headmistress Miss Trunchbull. 

Lillie Thomas delivers a similarly strong performance as the sweetheart schoolteacher, part of an overall excellent cast that plays a huge part in making the show such an enjoyable and memorable one. An experienced adult ensemble plays a variety of miscellaneous characters as well as the “big kids” that join in with a handful of similarly talented actual kids who round out the cast as Matilda’s classmates. 

Karen Stephens radiates warmth as the librarian Mrs. Phelps, Nate Promkul stuns with crystal clear vocals as a good-hearted doctor, and Pablo Pernia oozes sensuality as Rudolpho, an Italian dance teacher who is heavily implied to be a “partner” of Matilda’s mother Mrs. Wormwood in both bedroom and ballroom activities. 

As Mrs. Wormwood, Mallory Newbrough establishes herself as a true triple threat by keeping up with Pernia’s tangoing while selling the comedic number “Loud,” a song about standing out despite lack of substance that rings somewhat depressingly true in our social-media-saturated world. 

Anthony Cataldo also ekes out quite a few laughs as Matilda’s equally repellant father Mr. Wormwood, delivering the Act 2 opener “Telly” with a sleazy slimeball charisma. Though Bryan Austermann similarly nails the role of the sadistic and self-serious Trunchbull, I’m not quite sure how I feel about the actor’s gender-bending being part of the joke in a climate that is perhaps more sensitive to gender nonconformity than the early 2010s era into which the show emerged. 

That, though, is, like most everything else in my con column, a criticism more of Matilda and its conventions than with this particular production, which was also above par in most of its technical elements. For instance, some numbers and sequences felt over-long and slightly repetitive, which led to an evening that felt a little overlong overall, especially as it clocked in at almost three hours when all was said and done. 

Musically, the score also felt a little more perfunctory than catchy, and a few important plot elements also could’ve perhaps been better foreshadowed, though the show does manage to come to a clever conclusion that knits together a prominent story-within-a-story and the play’s larger plot. 

And though the show’s aura of immaturity leaves it more in the realm of “entertaining” than thought-provoking for adult viewers, Matilda is a story that comes to moving and satisfying resolution, and is thus one that the more sentimental among us might not escape from with dry eyes. I, at least, found myself getting choked up at our little heroine’s hard-won happy ending, so if you’d like to see if you find yourself similarly transported, you can do so at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater until this April 10. 

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