ELLSWORTH — Two long years of waiting have paid off in grand style with the arrival of an adorable, smart little girl who is sure to melt the coldest of hearts in the Acadia Community Theater production of the Tony and Olivier Award-winning “Matilda the Musical,” now playing at The Grand Auditorium.
Fans of Roald Dahl will understand that this is no “Anne of Green Gables” style story where a little girl’s enthusiasm and spunk bring out the better natures of everyone she encounters.
Oh no. In fact, it’s 6-year-old Matilda’s prodigious cleverness and desire to set things right that are wrong in her world that causes most of the important people in her life to despise her – including her self-absorbed, ineptly criminal parents and the sadistic headmistress of her school.
From the moment she is born – an event we get to witness, although her mother is shockingly disengaged from the process – poor Matilda is either ignored or discouraged from being who she is — a remarkably smart and talented child with a secret superpower.
Fortunately, or this would be a very dark tale indeed, Matilda finds two grownups who encourage her imagination and desire to learn and help her find a way out of the bleak circumstances of her birth. They are the local librarian (a wonderfully ditzy Angel Hochman) and a teacher, aptly named Miss Honey (a wonderfully sweet Sonia Berghoff).
The success of this show rests on the small shoulders of the young actor chosen to play Matilda, who has a daunting amount of dialogue to say, songs to sing and stage business to perform.
Like the character she plays, 10-year-old Lucia Dilena has all right stuff needed to make the audience fall in love with her. She has a tuneful singing voice that could only be improved by a little more projection, and a preternatural sense of comic timing, knowing exactly how many beats to wait before delivering a punchline.
“Oh good, it’s going to be happy ending after all!” the librarian enthuses while listening to one of Matilda’s stories.
Matilda just looks at her indulgently for a few beats before saying ruefully, “No, actually, things get worse… much, much worse.” And they do.
As her woefully awful parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Andrew Simon and Courtney Schusheim are a horrible hoot. Simon is one of the few cast members who can manage a credible cockney accent – his wife at times sounds more like the TV version of self-invented entrepreneur Anna Delvey (but hey, that works, too).
Simon somehow manages to be rather endearing as well as despicable with his hyper-physicality and braying. As his imagined alter-ego, the escapologist hero of Matilda’s stories, he and Matilda break your heart in the duet “I’m Here” because in Matilda’s real life, her dad never is there for her or cares that she is waiting for him to show up. Waah!
There is absolutely nothing endearing, however, about the terrible Miss Trunchbull, the one-time Olympic hammer thrower, who runs her school like a federal penitentiary. Matt Cornish, who also stepped up to direct the show after the two-year hiatus, is, I am afraid to say – since he is also the real-life director of a children’s summer camp and father of two small children – perfectly cast for this role.
Physically, with her battering-ram bosom (kudos to costumer Jaylene Roths), Miss Trunchbull is a formidable presence, and her booming baritone as she bellows at her “maggots” (students) is enough to make us all want to hide under our seats before she singles us out for some random punishment, such as being hurled like one of her Olympic hammers or locked up in the dreaded Choker. Although what she says and sings is horrible, Miss Trunchbull is the one cast member who makes herself, at all times, painfully clear.
Miss Honey, on the other hand, is Trunchbull’s opposite. Soft spoken (at times a wee bit too soft) with a sweet, rather fragile soprano, Berghoff embodies everything a small, precocious child could hope to find on her first day of school. And, as it turns out, Miss Honey could use a little rescuing herself.
Speaking of precocious children, this show is packed with ‘em. They sing, they dance, they skip rope, bounce balls and endure being terrorized and even tossed about by Trunchbull with impressive commitment, and seem to be having a cracking good time of it to boot.
A standout here is Molly Dority whose strong, tuneful voice lends depth to the kids’ chorus and fills the auditorium with her solo turns. I look forward to seeing this proto-diva in high school productions.
Another adult standout is Michael Smith who brings his strong tenor and fun energy to several roles.
As engaging as all this is, there are several elements of the show that could be improved. The Tim Minchin songs, especially the chorus numbers, which are both witty and difficult – more Sondheim than Disney – tend to be a little ragged around the edges and could use an extra rehearsal or two with emphasis on enunciation and cohesion. Also, rather than the expected pit orchestra, the accompaniment was recorded, and this often leads to awkward pauses as performers wait for their digital musical cues.
While some of the set elements are great – the giant stacks of books and alphabet blocks, for instance, the limited budget shows here, with much of stage underdressed and a blank movie screen as a backdrop. As it is, we are never fully transported into to a schoolroom, library, home, etc.
When Matilda is spinning her stories about an acrobat and her beloved escapologist, one suspects the action is supposed to be pantomimed in full upstage. But this opportunity to add another dimension to the show is largely unrealized.
Production elements that work remarkably well, however, are some neat sound effects and a way-cool special effect involving magic writing.
A good show, performed by an enthusiastic, talented cast on a wonderful old stage, is a fine thing we have been doing without, worldwide, for far too long. Let’s hope that this lively, fun ACT production of “Matilda the Musical” is yet another strong step out of these pandemic times toward a new and maybe even better normal.
Final performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 6-7, at and at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 8. For tickets, call The Grand’s box office at (207) 667-9500 or go to www.grandonline.org.