From the pen of one of the most singular authors of the previous century to Bainbridge Island’s central stage, you just can’t keep a gifted girl down.
It seems the whole world loves “Matilda.”
Included by Time on their list of the “100 Best Young-Adult Books of All Time” (and reportedly outselling all Roald Dahl’s other works), “Matilda,” later adapted for the screen by Danny DeVito, portrayed by the inimitable Mara Wilson, first found its way to the stage via a 1990 musical version at the Redgrave Theatre.
Despite (or maybe because of) mixed reviews, a second musical version, “Matilda the Musical,” written by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered in 2010, eventually coming to Broadway and called the best British musical since “Billy Elliot.”
It is this second incarnation, winner of multiple Olivier Awards in England and Tony Awards in America, coming to the Bainbridge Performing Arts stage early next month, that boasts reunited show runners and the return of beloved familiar faces, as well as a new leading lady making her island debut.
Like the novel and movie, the musical follows Matilda Wormwood, a precocious 5-year-old girl with the gift of telekinesis, who loves reading, overcomes the obstacles of her awful family and a school run by a tyrannical disciplinarian, and helps her kindly teacher reclaim her life.
Helming the production are BPA regulars director Ken Michels and choreographer Heather Dawson, as well as former resident BPA music director Josh Anderson, returning for his first show in years after having relocated out of state.
“I moved to Minnesota until this most recent May, so I just moved back,” Anderson said. “I saw that [Ken] was directing and I was going to be back in town so I said, ‘Can I please come?’”
To hear Michels tell it, though, it was he who was eagerly asking.
“We go way back,” he said. “I started saying, ‘Gosh, I wish Josh was here.’ And then things started falling into place and a couple of music directors came and went and then it just, boom, on the day that we didn’t have a music director he became kind of available. So we snatched him.”
The show, Michels said, has long been on his personal to-do list.
“It’s the top of my bucket list of shows to do,” he said. “When I saw it … I thought it was the best show I’d ever seen; for everything: the staging, the choreography, the music, the book.
“I love working with kids,” he added. “I’ve done it all my life. And you need to have 10 of the strongest kids you’d ever had for this show; it’s very demanding. The Matilda role is basically the Hamlet of musicals for kids. Luckily, we found a great one.”
Portraying the titular super-powered prodigy, in her first appearance on a Bainbridge stage, is Olivia Juarez, 11, of Bremerton.
A newcomer to the spotlight, Olivia said she only moved up from acting camps to performing last year, appearing in “Peter Pan” at Kitsap Forest Theater and then later in “Newsies.”
Already a fan of the film and musical, “‘Matilda,’” she said, “is one of my favorite shows.”
“She’s mysterious, and she does sneaky things and it’s cool,” Olivia said. “And then I just love how they added stuff to it.”
In addition to those slight story changes and, of course, the musical numbers, Olivia said she enjoys that the show has a message to impart.
“There for sure is,” she said of the musical’s moral. “I call it child abuse, because [Matilda is] getting abused by these people, and so I think people should go out trying to be nice to more people instead of being mean. Because meanness is just going to spread and then everybody’s going to be mean and then what are you going to do about it?”
Michels said at first he thought Olivia would prove too good to be true.
He was relieved to be wrong.
“I saw her in ‘Newsies’ … just a dancer, one of the ensemble, no lines, no nothing and I could not take my eyes off her,” he said. “It was like everyone was following her, she was so precise, and so I asked about her and I said I’d love to talk to her sometime, but I never did.
“But I guess word of mouth got around, and her and her mom came and showed up to audition,” he added. “And I was just going, ‘Please be able to sing and please be able to act [because] I know you can dance.’
“And when she walked in the door I knew right off the bat, because she was perfect. She was my vision of Matilda. But now, can she handle the work? Can she handle this music? Can she handle the acting? Yes. Yes. Yes. In fact, she’s teaching me how to do some stuff.”
In addition to the new face of the lead, the show features the return of a familiar visage on stage as well — though bedecked in much imposing makeup.
Justin Wayne Lynn, familiar to longtime BPA fans from his turns in “Shrek” and “Putnam County Spelling Bee,” among others, portrays the horrible headmistress Agatha Trunchbull.
“This is my first show in five years,” Lynn said. “The creative team brought me back.
“Ken Michels, Heather, [production manager] Deirdre [Hadlock], and then Josh, he was a lot of the reason. He’s one of my favorite musical directors I’ve ever had. This is the same team, we did ‘Shrek,’ we did ‘Spelling Bee,’ we did ‘[Monty Python’s] Spamalot.’”
Mostly known for his turn as humorous and lovable characters, Lynn, a teacher himself in real life, said he was enjoying being the heavy this time around.
“I really love the kind of roles where it seems like this person might go insane in a couple scenes, and that’s what this is,” he said. “I don’t get to play villains very often. I think this is maybe my second villain. So I’m feeling pretty good about this. I’m actually a teacher during the day. I teach people from 3 to 6 and it’s a lot of soft and gentle language — and then I come here and I scream at children. It’s a great balance. You need yin and yang, you know what I’m saying?”
While the novel is established and revered, and the film is ubiquitous to those of a certain age, the musical is admittedly less familiar.
However, Anderson said it is more than worth discovering.
“Tim Minchin is the composer and he’s absolutely brilliant,” the musical director said. “He doesn’t really read music, so that’s fascinating, but he writes excellent songs and has a really almost like [Stephen] Sondheim quality to his lyrics, the way that the lyrics and the music interplay. And for me, to have a show that’s written for kids that’s not excessively easy musically, it’s a challenge for the kids as well as the adults, and I think that’s really exciting because it allows us so much freedom to really dig into the music itself and kind of explore the score.”
The director agreed it was a trying show for actors of all ages, and one impossible to perfect without a prime crop of young talent.
“I told Deirdre if it ever becomes available you need to do it,” he said. “The reason is that they’ve got this great BPA school. This is the only theater I can think of that can handle ‘Matilda’ right. There’s not a weak kid on our stage. Usually, you get like five good and five just kind of there, [but] there’s not a weak kid on our stage. And then, for our adult ensemble, a lot of our friends came back.”
The cast includes Molly Hall as Ms. Honey, Matilda’s teacher; Jason Gingold, Kayla Teel and Sadie Gingold as Mister, Missus and Michael Wormwood, respectively; and also Elizabeth Dangelo, Olivia Opalski, Evelyn Cantwell, Willow Erdman, Charlie Philips, Hugo Gustafson, Alexandria Douthart, Sophia Marchinek, Olive Watson, Dolly Courtway, Ryan P. O’Donnell, Matt Bergonzine, James Sgambati, Stefanie Van Rafelghem, Robert Craighead, Michelle Abad, Anna Vizzare, Justin Silver, Maddy Garfunkel, and Amanda Stevenson.
“Matilda The Musical” runs Friday, Dec. 6 through Sunday, Dec. 22, with evening shows at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, early matinees on Saturdays at 2 p.m., and matinees at 3 p.m. Sundays. There will be a special pay-what-you-can preview performance at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, and the opening night reception is 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6.
Tickets, $29 for adults, $24 for seniors, students, youth, military, and teachers, may be purchased online at www.bainbridgeperformingarts.org, by phone at 206-842-8569, or in person at BPA (200 Madison Ave. North).
Box office hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and one hour prior to each performance.