Review: 'Matilda' is a Magical and Joyous Riot of a Show

Among the 52 headshots included in the program for stageGR’s production of Matilda (onstage through March 10th) is one that isn’t a headshot at all. Instead, it’s a cute drawing of a cat, thick white lines on a sky-blue background. Below it is a signature: Tessa.

The back of the program explains it. “Our production of Matilda is dedicated to our dear friend, Tessa Stanley 2/21/2006 - 12/11/2023.” Photographs included below that painful range of dates show a lively, sincere young woman. She died tragically late last year, less than a month after registering to audition for the show. It’s not impossible that she left behind some of her own energy, humor, and talent, and that it’s made its way onto the stage.

Matilda is a perfect show to dedicate to an extraordinary girl; after all, it’s about one. Upstanding and remarkably bright, Matilda (Linnea Elzinga) is trapped in a loud, vulgar family. Her parents didn’t want her, and still don’t; her father (Jeremy Holtrop) pays so little attention to her that he thinks she’s a boy. And her mother (Rachel Turner), who has a suspiciously close relationship with her dance instructor, just wants her to put down her book and concentrate on what matters: makeup and clothing, both very preferably garish.

Author Roald Dahl had an instinct for the grotesque and the absurd (and has paid the price; his publisher, knowing that being dead he can’t complain, recently published bowdlerized versions of his books). Holtrop and Turner lean into that grotesquerie, earning big, broad laughs.

School provides a partial refuge. Matilda’s able to check out books, at least, and is able to spin stories for Mrs. Phelps (Audrey Moore), the librarian. (In a regrettable bit of staging, library carts often block the protagonists of Matilda’s stories from view). And Miss Honey (Miranda Hickman), a thoughtful, caring teacher, sees something wonderful in her. But the school’s run by a sadistic headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Carter Strobel), a woman whose maternal instincts, if they ever existed, have long since curdled.

The show’s a riot of music and dancing and is made more riotous by the huge cast. Even in its darkest moments, there’s joy. Strobel is particularly joyful as the awful headmistress, playing her as a woman whose professional facade barely conceals a roiling insanity. Hickman’s Miss Honey is, as her name implies, sweet; she’s also a little passive, at least at first.

But there’s only one name in the title. Elzinga, as Matilda, speaks (in a British accent), sings, and dances, all of it with seeming effortlessness. There’s a temptation to grade child actors on a curve, but it was never a temptation here; she’s genuinely impressive. It’s a long show, but she proved more than capable of carrying it.

It’s fun for the whole family: has any phrase been used less truthfully more often? And yet it proved true here. My daughters (Gemma, 10, and Heidi, 8) enjoyed it as much as I did, a tribute to the work of many dozens of people, including one who was there, too, even if only in spirit.

March 8-10


Photo Courtesy of stageGR.