WASHINGTON — Seriously, what was Roald Dahl eating for breakfast?
The guy was on fire when it came to writing wonderfully weird children’s classics.
Not only did he pen “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The BFG,” he also created one of the most magical children’s tales of all time in “Matilda.”
Now, that timeless tale hits the Kennedy Center with “Matilda the Musical.” Written by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the show played in London’s West End in 2011, won five Tonys on Broadway in 2013, and now stops in D.C. as part of the U.S. national tour now through Jan. 10.
“When we got the schedule for the tour, the first place I noticed was Washington D.C. and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t wait to go there! I can’t wait to do the Kennedy Center! … We’re really pumped to bring this story and this show to the capital,” actor Quinn Mattfeld tells WTOP.
First published in 1988 — and adapted into a 1996 film starring Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman — the tale follows young Matilda, who grows up in Buckinghamshire under neglectful parents and strict schoolmasters, Miss Trunchbull and Mr. Wormwood. Taken under the wing of kind teacher Miss Honey, Matilda fights back with her brilliant mind and telekinesis pranks.
Indeed, there might not be a “Harry Potter” if not for “Matilda.”
“It’s a fantastic show about a little girl who’s very, very special. She has an incredible mind, the ability to do calculations in her head, and she reads Dostoevsky. … She’s a really special person in really bad circumstances, and when I say bad circumstances, I’m referring to myself,” Mattfeld jokes.
Mattfeld plays Mr. Wormwood, a crazy hair-dyed role that won Gabriel Ebert a Tony on Broadway. The role is a “sleazy, stupid, English used car salesman / crook” and one of the show’s “great comic villains.” In Dahl’s work, the darkness and the comedy have always gone hand-in-hand, from the giant sharks chasing James on his giant peach, to the psychedelic boat trips of Willy Wonka.
“He doesn’t sanitize things for kids. In fact, he makes things a little bit extra dark. … He knew that kids can handle that stuff. It’s actually fun to be a little bit scared and to be a little bit dark. … He has that wonderful darkness, but it’s also in the vein of great imaginative, fantastical storytelling.”
The job of “Matilda the Musical” is to bring those fantastical elements to life.
“We throw a girl on stage and she’s going to fly around in your imagination and land back on stage. There’s magical chalk and all of that stuff, you actually see it. We really do it on stage. There is no dearth of stage magic in this show. It’s really exciting and really cool to watch. … There’s so many moving set pieces and it really is immersive and kind of amazing how much we get away with.”
These dazzling visual effects are matched by an array of Tony-nominated songs by Minchin.
“He’s just about the strangest genius you could meet. … What he and Dennis Kelly have done is taken this story that’s part of Western cultural heritage and made it blossom by giving it music that has the same sense of Dahl, that snarky sense of humor, really clever wit and biting commentary.”
For that biting commentary, look no further than the opening number, “Miracle.”
“All these parents are talking about what a miracle their child is and how they’re super advanced and very special and emotionally developed more than the rest of their class, and it’s all these just terrible children tearing things up and threatening to attack you. Then there’s little Matilda, who comes out and sings about how her parents think she’s a lousy little worm and she needs to watch more TV.”
Other memorable numbers include Miss Trunchbull’s “The Smell of Rebellion,” Mrs. Wormwood’s “Loud” and Mr. Wormwood’s rockabilly salute to television “Telly.” Still, the most showstopping number is “Revolting Children,” performed by the children in the cast.
“It’s the one that’s always stuck in my head when I’m trying to go to sleep,” Mattfeld jokes.
Beyond all the sights and sounds, “Matilda” resonates most because of its universal themes.
“The thing that I really love about the show is it’s exploring the idea that you are in charge of telling your own story, and if you don’t like the way it’s going, you get to change it. … Matilda is telling stories all the time and her parents make fun of her because all she cares about is books and stories and imagination. It’s kind of a love letter to storytelling. It’s operating on that level. The stories that you tell yourself and that you tell other people really do have an effect on your life,” Mattfeld says.
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“It sort of has that Pixar magic to it, where there’s great jokes for kids — you can hear when all the kids laugh in the show — and then you can hear the ones where the adults really get it. It’s great to bring families to. That’s one of the things that has always been true of Roald Dahl.”
This external struggle between kids and adults — and the internal struggle between the kid and adult in us all — keeps drawing us to the theater, with eternal lessons on the wonder of imagination.
“People tend to think of the theater as ‘entertainment,’ and it is, but it’s also that thing where they call it ‘culture’ too because it’s good for you. Going to the theater is good for you, and having an artistic experience is good for you, and this is a show that I think is good for everybody.”
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