Zach Theatre's Matilda the Musical

With its memorable characters and energetic performances, this production connects adults with their inner child

The cast of Matilda the Musical at Zach Theatre (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

It's a cruel irony of life that children often dream of the day they'll become adults – free of bedtimes, homework, and overbearing authority figures – while adults conversely pine for the carefree, wondrous days of their youth. It can be difficult to see the two sides of the coin, which is why stories that capture both the hardships and wonders of childhood as aptly as Roald Dahl's 1988 novel Matilda can take on new meanings and significance as its reader grows older.

Like the book, Zach Theatre's Matilda the Musical invites its audience to step into child-sized shoes and see the world from the perspective of its brilliant, misunderstood protagonist. In many ways, experiencing this production is comparable to witnessing a child's overactive imagination projected onto the stage. Ushering us into this fantastic world is the show's unique set, cleverly designed by Michelle Ney to resemble a classroom blackboard, with set-pieces and props resembling a grade-schooler's chalk doodles. Against this sparse backdrop, Matilda's cast and crew proceed like an excited kindergartner wielding a fresh pack of art supplies, breathing energetic life onto this blank canvas via offbeat characters, inspired lighting design, and spirited ensemble numbers.

Set design aside, Matilda resonates with my inner child in that the production doesn't simply evoke nostalgic memories of childhood excitement, it creates these experiences onstage in real time. While Matilda's cast features a host of seasoned Austin performers, the spotlight is frequently stolen by the ensemble chorus of Matilda's classmates, portrayed by two rotating groups of grade-school students from Zach's pre-professional company. With gusto and talent, these young thespians tackle composer Tim Minchin's demanding vocal arrangements, as well as choreographer Jen Young Mahlstedt's complex movements, holding their own against their adult castmates in the process. Though the technique they exhibit is seriously impressive, the enthusiasm these young actors bring to every number they're in is unmistakably genuine.

In the role of the titular protagonist (which she shares with fellow Zach pre-professional student Alexa Nelan), seventh-grader Chloe Van De Graaf brings order to all this excitement. Though she brings to the role all the endearing spunkiness expected of the character, Van De Graaf also exhibits a gentle timidness in both her physicality and vocal performance. In this world populated by outlandish, larger-than-life characters, Matilda comes across as a relatively normal, grade-school girl simply trying to make sense of the madness around her.

Because Van De Graaf and her school-aged peers portray their roles with such authenticity, the hardships they endure feel familiar and real. For example, the trepidation the kids feel during their first day of class brings back vivid memories of primary school anxiety. Similarly, the isolation and neglect Matilda faces from her callous, uncaring parents is sure to strike a chord with anyone who's felt alone or misunderstood as a child.

We've all been in these children's shoes before, in some form or another, and as a result we can't help but root for these pint-sized heros – especially when they're up against a villain as large as the ruthless, dictatorial headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. As the show's antagonist, Zach regular J. Robert "Jimmy" Moore brings a fresh take to one of the most feared characters in children's literature. Though still every bit as fearsome as the novel's counterpart, Moore's Trunchbull is played with a sort of scheming sensuality, more reminiscent of a nightclub singer than a boorish drill sergeant. Seeing as Moore has shown an ability to play a variety of memorable characters in a single show, most notably in the one-man Zach productions Buyer and Cellar and The Santaland Diaries, it's refreshing to see this actor spend a show fully inhabiting a single character.

As I left Zach's Topfer Theatre, I couldn't help but think back fondly on the childhood experiences, both good and bad, that shaped me into the adult I am today. By virtue of its memorable characters and energetic performances, Matilda the Musical is a show that celebrates childhood, but also presents it for what it is: a frustrating, oft overwhelming time in one's life.

Matilda the Musical

Zach Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Through May 12
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

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Zach Theatre, Abe Reybold, Nat Miller, Roald Dahl, Michelle Ney, Jen Young Mahlstedt, Chloe Van De Graff, J. Robert Moore

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