By Rachele Stoops
When Roald Dahl’s first children’s book was published in 1943, it was wartime. Germany began bombing English cities in 1941, and many children in those cities were sent to live with strangers in the countryside, to keep them safe. Maybe Dahl, a pilot with the Royal Air Force, naturally incorporated the dark and frightening experiences of the children around him into his stories. Or maybe he was just a weird dude.
Dahl’s children’s books have achieved classic status, despite themes and plotlines that seem bizarre to adults. His stories consistently feature the adults as villains, and the children employing the little power they have in society to come out on top, and even to seek revenge against the adults in their lives.
Matilda the Musical, directed by Blake Tobey and playing at the recently rebranded Nebraska Communities Playhouse in Hickman, has all of the Roald Dahl elements.
The story follows a young English girl, Matilda, from her surprise birth to her discovery of her unusually powerful mind. Without supportive parents, she finds refuge in the public library and its quirky librarian (played by Colleen Bade), her friends at school, and her gentle teacher, Miss Honey (Amanda Schumacher). Matilda (Gracie Kathman) combines her spunk and her exceptional intellect to save the school from the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Amy Koepke), and save the day for herself and Miss Honey.
The Nebraska Communities Playhouse building couldn’t be more different than the original Stage Theater. The building itself is modern, with wide hallways, a large foyer, and much bigger audience capacity. The stage itself is at least twice the size as The Stage’s stage (I’m just guessing here; I didn’t measure). The walls and floor are a very neutral gray, possibly to prevent competition with the scenes on the proscenium stage.
The set for Matilda is simple – a large rotating piece that becomes the background for each scene’s setting. The piece is painted to look like oversized books, representing the importance of reading to Matilda’s story.
The cast features several meaty roles: Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s parents, are played by JD Madsen and Lisa Steiner, who are both gleeful in their villainy. Steiner wows in her dance number with her ballroom partner, Rudolpho (an adorably young and talented Keegan Brester). Madsen, as the slimy Mr. Wormwood, evoked memories of Danny DeVito in the same role in the 1996 film, but with his own smarmy details. Amanda Schumacher, playing Matilda’s timid but supportive teacher, Miss Honey, offered a drastically different version of adulthood, and her smooth and soothing vocals made her solos heartbreaking.
The youth ensemble includes children from elementary to high school ages, and is impressively strong. The group number at the beginning of the show was a little chaotic, but as the show progressed, the ensemble brought a consistent level of energy and commitment to the scenes. Harper Madsen, playing Matilda’s best friend Lavender, is especially fun to watch; her facial expressions alone can steal a scene.
Colleen Bade, playing the doctor, librarian, and cafeteria lady, deserves a special shoutout. Her characterizations were hilarious, and even her British accent was different for each role. I especially loved her as the librarian who provides Matilda a safe space and gives her her first taste of the kind of encouragement all children deserve.
Miss Agatha Trunchbull, the headmistress and sadistic bully of the school Matilda attends, is played by Amy Koepke, who gives a jaw-dropping performance. I couldn’t find a trace of the lovely woman I know in the evil character, and her portrayal of the ultimate childhood terror is iconic. I can’t imagine anyone doing it better.
Speaking of iconic, Gracie Kathman as Matilda is inspiring. Her pure soprano is the perfect timbre for musical theatre, her British accent never slips, and the energy and charisma she gives to Matilda would be impressive for anyone, even moreso a rising seventh grader. Instead of the meeker version of Matilda played by Mara Wilson in the film, Kathman’s Matilda is fierce. She’s brilliant without being annoying, insightful, sometimes sweet and often snarky. Most importantly, she’s comfortable on stage, and clearly, she belongs there.
There were some opening night snafus with sound and lighting, issues that will get easier as the production team gets more comfortable with the space. If you have less-than-perfect hearing, you’ll be better off towards the front of the auditorium.
Roald Dahl’s messages for children (Stand up for yourself! Adults aren’t always right!) were certainly outside of the norm in post-war England, and they’re only slightly more accepted almost a century later. So if you’re bringing your family to the Nebraska Communities Playhouse’s production of Matilda the Musical (and you should!), be warned: your own children may come away with a little more self-confidence and spunk!
If you go: Matilda the Musical is playing at the Nebraska Communities Playhouse in Hickman, Nebraska. Shows are July 15 – 16 & 21 – 23 at 7:30pm, and July 17 and 24 at 2:00pm. Tickets may be purchased at https://thestagetheater.com.
Rachele Stoops is an English teacher with Graduation Pathways for Lincoln Public Schools. She enjoys baking, karaoke, and turning her hobbies into side hustles. Dr. Stoops has four perfectly behaved grown-up children, a horribly behaved chihuahua, and a very patient husband.
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