FOREST PARK – The line of parents said it all. If you wanted to know just how much “St. Louis flair” the Muny’s performance of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” contained, you needed to look no further than the line of parents assembled to retrieve the dozens of young area actors who had just provided the heartbeat for the show’s opening night.
The venue’s renovated stage provides more space, and the show used every bit of it with a group of about fifty children and teens providing the singing and dancing backdrop for a powerhouse performance by 13-year-old Mattea Conforti in the title role.
Mattea delivers in a big way, but it’s to be expected. She played the role in 2016 when she made her Broadway debut, leading to high expectations as she took the Muny stage.
The look of that stage brought another uniquely St. Louis touch to the show. Legendary designer Mary Engelbreit, whose main business enterprise is in the Central West End, collaborated on the set and costume designs for the Muny performances.
That distinctive look complemented a show full of catchy numbers and scene-stealing performances by the villains in the cast.
The scene is set with an opening number consisting of parents singing about their perfect children, when Matilda’s mother emerges, clearly in denial that she’s having a baby.
The mother, Mrs. Wormwood, played by Ann Harada, is funny on her own but yields a great deal of attention when her husband takes the stage. Actor Josh Grisetti walks a thin line as Mr. Wormwood, managing to set every possible example of what a father should not aspire to be, yet remaining funny enough that you can laugh at/with him, even though you despise him.
The hit parade of great villains continues when the evil school headmaster, Miss Trunchbull, enters the action, played by Beth Malone. She’s also rotten to the core: an English “hammer throwing” champion who runs a school but hates children. Her mission in life is to suppress the “maggots,” as she calls them, at every turn. The extraordinarily smart Matilda presents a particular challenge for her.
Mattea, as Matilda, takes on the vast majority of the dialogue, particularly early on. She effortlessly guides the audience through her world of fantasy – and the real one, which she lashes out against behind closed doors – but desperately tries to hide from outsiders. Her command of the stage and the ease with which she conveys much of the character’s nuance are impressive for someone of any age, let alone an actor still years from being able to drive herself to the theater.
The story is fast-paced and funny throughout, if a bit long, running close to three hours. Don’t expect to have your children home much before midnight.
Some of the effects conjured up are fantastic, particularly a moment when Miss Trunchbull throws a student out the window. (See? She’s evil!) Excellent use is also made of the Muny’s new, high-tech stage for dream sequences as Matilda tells a story that begins as a child’s yarn but becomes central to the second act.
The presentation as a whole is great for the audience, though there were some audio glitches on opening night that were somewhat disappointing for a production of this caliber. More than one instance of a microphone not being on when a character speaks, and some audio interference, were unwelcome distractions from Matilda’s fantasy world.
But all in all, it’s a night worth spending for both grown-ups and children, as Roald Dahl spins a tale that takes a few “Harry Potter” themes, sprinkles in some Charles Dickens, then stirs in a touch of “Annie” for good measure. Add in the popping Engelbreit visuals, and a few dozen of St. Louis’ most talented young people, and you’ve got a pretty spectacular evening to close the Muny’s 101st season.
“Matilda” runs through Aug. 11. Tickets are available at the Muny’s website.