Sasquatch Productions empowers a dynamic local cast for Roald Dahl’s story of an exceptional girl

Early on in the first act of Matilda the Musical at the Parker PACE Center, I looked at the packed house of mostly kids and their parents and wondered how this story of hyperbolic child cruelty was being received. I had my 7-year-old granddaughter in the seat next to me, and she appeared to be pretty engaged. Behind me though, another young girl was heard to say aloud: “Can we go now? This is boring!”

To be sure, Matilda is not a boring show, but it does take a little bit to get off the ground and into the hearts of the audience. By the time the curtain falls, everyone was on their feet and soundly, it appeared, in the camp of the young girl who vanquishes the bully, resolves her awful family life and unlocks the story of her teacher’s own hard-luck case.

Getting us there is an exceptional cast of local actors — a mix of adults and two rotating casts of children who perform on alternate days. At the Jan. 19 matinee, we saw the “Revolting cast,” led by Castle Pines eighth-grader Ella Smith as Matilda. Perfect in the role, Smith embodies the never-say-die attitude of Dahl’s title character with strength, wit and, above all, intelligence.

As directed by Sasquatch Productions’ August Stoten, this Matilda is a tight-run ship, where the big musical numbers go off without a hitch, everyone’s hitting their marks consistently and even the smaller roles are sung by talented singers. With Tanner Kelly as musical director and Trent Hines on keys, the live orchestra is a cut above what you might expect in a local show like this, and the adult actors are pulled from the greater Denver area’s expanding and improving pool of talent.

Matilda’s unpleasant parents, played by Lindsey Kinney and Ben Hilzer

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Created in 2010 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda is one of the most widely produced newer musicals in America. In addition to this production in Parker, Vintage Theatre in Denver is producing it later in the year, and we reviewed a production in late 2018 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

While at first the child cruelty (which includes violence) at the heart of this story might seem off-putting to parents, the over-the-top nature of it seemed to work in its favor. Having a parent and a school administrator mock and belittle children for learning and reading books is so far from the experience of children today that even the youngest could easily see it for the fantasy-world it is.

And this cast really runs with it. As Matilda’s parents, Ben Hilzer and Lindsey Kinney are hilariously awful. Deploying cacophonous cockney accents, garish clothes and the emotional sensibility of scorpions, the Wormwoods are brightly hued caricatures of what parents would look like if they were created by Nazis – or, in this case, Roald Dahl. At school, Matilda has to contend with the horrific, child-hating headmistress Agatha Trunchbull, played with cruel flare by Cooper Kaminsky.

Fortunately, she also has an ally in her teacher, Miss Honey (Arwen Fonzen) as well as the school librarian (Alicia Pope), who serves as audience to Matilda’s continuing made-up story about a tragic couple who later turn out to be real.

Matilda has quite a few strong musical numbers. One standout is “The Smell of Rebellion,” Trunchbull’s diatribe against dissent. Hilarious, and very well put together by choreographer Heather Westenskow. Another is “Bruce,” where a hapless cake thief (played by a very funny Jackson Coleman in this cast) is forced by the sadistic Trunchbull to eat the entire remainder of the cake. On the lighter side, Miss Honey’s song about her tough-luck life — “My House” — was a welcome respite from the hardscrabble nature of most of the other numbers. Fonzen has a lovely voice and carries this number very well.

At about two-and-a-half hours (including intermission), Matilda the Musical is on the longer side for younger children. It depends on the kid, of course, but I’d say 6 or 7 is the youngest you’d want to bring to this one both for its length and at-times disturbing imagery. The high-energy song-and-dance numbers, which employ a lot of fun gimmicks like scooters, swings and other props, are bound to keep the younger ones engaged.

It’s great to see such a high-quality production packing them in at the PACE Center, and the entire community, along with Sasquatch, really came together to create a strong, professional and memorable production. In an era where bullying is less and less tolerated, the amplified version of that struggle presented here is a poignant tale that should resonate for all of us.

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