by Mercedes Hesselroth
This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.
Despite being one of the last books Roald Dahl ever wrote, Matilda has remained one of the British author’s highest-selling works. Even so, The Guardian notes a significant jump in Matilda’s global sales since 2016, the year of Brexit and the last U.S. presidential election. At its core, Matilda is a lesson in learning about the world around you and using that knowledge to make it a better place. Director Evan Hoffmann brings this lasting tale to the stage in NextStop Theatre Company’s production of Matilda The Musical.
Like the 1996 film adaptation starring Mara Wilson, this production moves the action from Buckinghamshire to America. Kindergartner Matilda Wormwood (Katie Marsh) uses books to escape her unloving homelife and tries to avoid the cruel headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Brett Cassidy) at school. Only her teacher, Miss Honey (Meredith Eib), recognizes Matilda’s abilities – including the supernatural abilities that surface later on in the show.
Marsh, who alternates the role with Jane Keifer, brings a natural maturity to this classic heroine and cheekily carries out her small acts of resistance against overbearing authority figures. When she seems to rat out a fellow student to the whims of Trunchbull’s wrath, it’s genuinely shocking until we find out that, as usual, Matilda is three steps ahead of us.
Emily Lotz’ scenic design incorporates a clever split-level formation in the tight space to accommodate the numerous locations of the show. A bright pink and blue palette for the set with popping neon accents highlights the Wormwood’s distaste for a daughter. Costume designer Paris Francesca displays a range of memorable outfits from Trunchbull’s gym uniform to the acrobats’ beautiful circus leotards.
By far the most compelling aspect of the show is how smoothly the child and adult ensembles work in tandem. The synergy between these two groups forms the glue of the production, and it’s a testament to Hoffmann’s direction that even with a rotating child roster, the cast blends together seamlessly. The adult ensemble works overtime to handle multiple characters apiece, most impressively when they form a gang of older students to haze the kindergartners in “School Song.” Their quick delight at terrorizing anyone lower on the ladder and the children’s palpable fear make it the standout number of the show. Choreographer Nicole Marie Maneffa uses the size difference between the ensembles to craft inventive dances, such as “Bruce” and “Revolting Children.”
Ask any theatre professional how they got their start and they’ll mention catching “the bug” after an impressionable childhood trip to the theater. It warms the heart to think of all the DMV children for whom NextStop’s Matilda will be that show. If there’s a little rebel in your life, make sure they see this story of kindness rising in the face of adversity.