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'Matilda the Musical' at Zach is a confused, energetic fairy tale

Andrew J. Friedenthal, special to the American-Statesma
Chloe Van De Gaaf, left, and J. "Jimmy" Robert Moore star in "Matilda the Musical" at Zach Theatre. [CONTRIBUTED BY KIRK TUCK]

The children’s books of British author Roald Dahl are known for their darkly comic tone, bringing elements of the macabre and the traumatic to stories for young readers. When translated to other media, that weird mix of family friendliness with sinister undertones often becomes part of the adaptation, with perhaps the most infamous example being the terrifying tunnel scene in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” The same is true of adaptations of Dahl’s work to the stage, as is the case with “Matilda the Musical,” now playing at Zach Theatre through May 12 in a new production directed by Abe Reybold and Nat Miller.

With a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by comedian/songwriter Tim Minchin (as well as orchestrations/additional music by Chris Nightingale), “Matilda” is a mixed bag of a musical that juxtaposes the family-friendly antics of a stage full of precocious schoolkids with dark, semi-serious scenes of child abuse. Kelly and Minchin, unfortunately, don’t quite pull off this balance in a satisfying manner. While much of the story seems to operate on a kind of fairy-tale logic, the text never takes time to fully establish the rules of this world, leading to a series of moments that feel like they come from entirely different shows.

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Zach’s production falls prey to the danger of these shifts, with several very dark scenes featuring the titular hyper-intelligent Matilda’s emotional neglect and abuse at the hands of her parents, as well as physical abuse from school headmistress Miss Trunchbull (played with heightened camp by J. Robert Moore). From an adult’s perspective, these scenes are jarring and disturbing enough to sit awkwardly next to silly musical numbers about eating a giant cake or an intense P.E. class (though judging from the raucous response of the audience throughout, other viewers may feel differently).

However, for children who are comfortable with this darker edge (and their families), “Matilda” is a delightful chance to see people their own age exhibiting an inordinate amount of talent and to laugh at humor that is aimed at their level without speaking down to them. The larger musical numbers are the highlights of this production in part because they feature the young cast (many of them members of Zach's acting academy) energetically giving their all, serving as more than a match for their adult colleagues.

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These numbers are also delightful because of the top-notch technical mastery on display. Scenic designer Michelle Ney, costume designer Susan Branch Towne (alongside hair-and-makeup designer Serret Jensen), lighting designer Matt Webb, sound designer Craig Brock and properties designer Scott Groh work together seamlessly with Jen Young Mahlstedt’s choreography to create delightful stage romps that combine inventive dancing (much of it based on youthful schoolyard games) with hilarious, surprising visual jokes and other clever nuances.

Though (like its source material) “Matilda the Musical” at Zach is a strange mix of trauma and silliness, its most memorable feature is the delightful, charming excitement of the young cast, who are a draw in and of themselves.