Small But Mighty: Message of ‘Matilda’ is kids can change the world

Small But Mighty: Message of ‘Matilda’ is kids can change the world
LARA JO HIGHTOWER/Special to the Free Weekly

“Matilda the Musical,” based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 book, burst on to the theatrical scene in 2011 with a West End production, which opened to widespread critical acclaim. It transferred to Broadway in 2013, where New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

“’Matilda’ is as much an edge-of-the-seats nail biter as a season-finale episode of ‘Homeland,’” Brantley’s review continued. “Above all, it’s an exhilarating tale of empowerment, as told from the perspective of the most powerless group of all. I mean little children.”

The story of 5-year-old genius Matilda Wormwood, rejected by her family and terrorized at school by the villainous Miss Agatha Trunchbull, was adapted for the stage by playwright Dennis Kelly and composer/lyricist Tim Minchin.

“Even if you’re little, you can do a lot, you/ Mustn’t let a little thing like, ‘little’ stop you/ If you sit around and let them get on top, you/ Might as well be saying/ You think that it’s OK/ And that’s not right!/ And if it’s not right!/ You have to put it right!” sings Matilda in “Naughty.”

And, boy, does Matilda figure out how to put things right.

“I think the message is, even though there’s going to be really bad people, aka Miss Trunchbull, in your life, and they’re going to try and push you down, you’re always going to be able to find at least one person that’s going to be there through thick and thin,” says 13-year-old Leanne Parks, who shares the role of Matilda with actor Piper Wallace. (Wallace and Parks, along with the other underage cast members, perform on alternate nights as the “Blue” and “Green” cast.)

For Matilda, that one person is Miss Honey, the kind and gentle teacher who befriends her. In T2’s production, the role is played by Elisabeth Evans, last seen at T2 as “Girl” in “Once.”

In a melding of two of Northwest Arkansas’ favorite institutions, “Matilda the Musical” will be produced in the new Fayetteville Public Library’s event space. Producing “Matilda” at the library doubles the company’s potential seating and allows a seamless transition between “My Father’s War” and “American Mariachi” back at their home theater, says T2’s Marketing Director Joanna Sheehan Bell, who adds that the library and the University of Arkansas theater have both contributed to help transform the equipment and capacity of the new space to work with the unique technical requirements of the show. (Courtesy Photo/Wesley Hitt for T2)

“The storytelling and the music are so woven together,” says Evans. “There’s no song that is just like, ‘And now we need a song.’ It’s all very motivated. I think a lot of people coming to ‘Matilda’ are expecting, ‘This is for kids!’ And it is; it’s very family friendly. But there’s a lot of heart, and there’s a lot of meat in there. It’s not surface level at all. When you see it, you get so much more than you bargained for in the story — it just pierces right through your heart. You connect to it immediately. And to see these kids sing about things that we as adults understand very differently — there’s so much for kids in it, and there’s so much for adults in it, and I think that is what is truly revolutionary about it. That it takes this musical that stars a kid and makes it really meaningful and impactful for everyone in the audience.”

If Miss Honey is, as Evans calls her, “maybe the least cartoonish of all the adults,” psychotic teacher Miss Agatha Trunchbull is the exact opposite. Capable of the most diabolical punishments for even the mildest of transgressions, she takes pleasure in terrorizing the children at Matilda’s school. Drew Johnson, last seen in “Shakespeare in Love,” plays Trunchbull in a first for the prolific actor: While he has scores of credits on his resume, including multiple Shakespearean roles, this will be the first time he’s sung on a professional stage .

“It’s a big challenge,” Johnson admits. “Aimee [Hayes], our director, co-directed ‘Shakespeare in Love’ a couple of years ago, which I was in, and, among other roles, I played Lady Capulet in the sort of play-within-a-play. I think she knew that it was really important to me that the joke of Trunchbull is not that it’s a man playing a woman. … I think she knew that I would take care with that. As far as the sort of over-the-top nature of Trunchbull, it’s like actors always say — you kind of have to tap into the ‘Why?’ ‘Why is this villain doing these things?’ and try to understand them.”

In the end, says Piper Wallace, the production’s co-Matilda, despite Trunchbull’s devious machinations, the message of the show is a positive one.

“I feel like the basic topic of the show is ‘Even if you’re little you can do a lot,’” says Wallace. “No matter who underestimates you or puts you down, you just have to know that you can come back up, you can make things right. …With Matilda, nobody really understands her. And a lot of people don’t understand you, either. And so you’ve just got to find people that you love and trust and make things as good as possible.”


‘Matilda: The Musical’

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 & 7:3o p.m. Saturday; and 6 p.m. Sunday, through July 25

WHERE — In the auditorium at the Fayetteville Public Library

COST — $34-$54

INFO — 777-7477,

Categories: Theater