After a long journey, ‘Matilda’ swings back to the Majestic

by | May 18, 2022 | Arts and Entertainment | 1 comment

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Some of the younger cast members in “Matlida the Musical” perform in rehearsal. The show, which opens April 29 at the Majestic Theatre, has been a lengthy labor of love for its cast and crew. (Photo by Sabrina Dedek, Bellatrix Photographic.)

In 2017, Timothy John Kelley II saw a production of “Matilda the Musical” at the Keller Auditorium in Portland and thought the show would be a natural fit for Corvallis.

“I’m like, ‘What a great show to do down in Corvallis,’ because we have so many talented kids,” Kelley said in a recent interview. “The show is family-friendly, which we love. There’s a really good message in the show about standing up to bullies. There’s a line in the show: ‘Just because you find out life’s not fair doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it.’ That’s kind of the underlying message throughout the whole show.”

Kelley, who uses them/they pronouns, pitched the show to the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis and got the green light. Cast and crew were assembled. Work got underway. Promotional materials were created announcing that the show would be on the Majestic stage.

In May 2020.

“And then,” Kelley said, “we all know what happened.” The show was postponed, then canceled. Kelley had the heartbreaking task of breaking the news to his team, and it was most difficult telling the show’s numerous young actors: “I can count maybe on one hand the number of times I’ve had to deliver disappointing news, and that’s one of them.”

Now, almost two years later, the COVID pandemic has eased to the point where live musicals can be staged in front of full houses, and “Matilda” is back. It’ll be the first full-scale musical production staged at the Majestic since the start of the pandemic.

And, Kelley said, world events other than COVID have shaped this production of “Matilda.”

In fact, they said, the answer to the question of why they want to stage “Matilda” “has changed a little bit in light of stuff that’s happened over in Ukraine. We’re standing up to bullies now. I think this message is more important now than ever. So my answer has adjusted slightly: We’re doing this show now because we want to send a clear message that you shouldn’t let bullies push you around. Stand your ground. Turn lemons into lemonade as best you can.”

“Matlida” is based on the 1988 Roald Dahl novel – now Dahl’s best-selling book – about a precocious 5-year-old girl who discovers that she has telekinetic powers, which come in handy in dealing with her distant (and emotionally abusive) parents and Miss Trunchbull, the tyrannical (and physically abusive) headmaster at her new school. “Matilda” features the unsentimental and darkly comic tone that is a Dahl trademark – and which has made him a favorite of younger and older readers alike.

Theatergoers who don’t know Dahl’s book may know Danny DeVito’s 1996 nonmusical movie, which drew critical praise but was a box-office dud. The musical adaptation was commissioned in 2009 by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and features a book by Dennis Kelly and music by Tim Minchin. Kelley said the musical takes elements from the book and elements from the movie, and “expands on all that content musically. I think people are going to be in for a surprise.”

The show offers unusual technical challenges: The effects surrounding what Kelley called “Matilda magic” need to be reasonably convincing. The set includes swings, which have to fly down from the theater’s catwalk and then fly back up after scenes – and, not incidentally, have to work like, well, functioning swings. As in many of his productions, Kelley is using projections throughout the show – but agreed when his co-director, Rebecca Douglas, suggested scratching the use of a projection during the “My House” number. That kind of give-and-take between the two directors has been typical, Kelley said: “I’m just really homed into what she wants in a production and she’s really homed in on what I want and so we’re really good at meeting in the middle.”

Adding to the challenges is the show’s heavy reliance on dancing and music, including a substantial amount of “underscore” – music that plays as actors speak their lines. (Kelley praised the show’s musical director, Stephanie Schwarz, for the considerable amount of work she’s tackled.)

Kelley and Douglas double-cast key roles, including that of Matilda (Piper Moss and Sabina Berglund switch off in the part), to guard against the possibility that illness could sideline a performer and throw a wrench into the production. It’s a precaution that paid off for the directors as well – both Kelley and Douglas lost time to illness during the production (Douglas had a cold; Kelley influenza), but their illnesses didn’t overlap, so the rehearsal process kept moving.

Finally, though, “Matilda” hinges on the strength of its young actors, and Kelley said they’ve been amazing.

“These kids are immensely talented, hardworking individuals,” they said. “To give you an example, when we would call break, our kids would still sit there and run the music and the choreo in the rehearsal rooms. We’re like, ‘Hey, you guys can get water, you know, you guys can use a break,’ and they’re like, ‘We want to just get through this one part first.’”

And they kept their adult counterparts on task: “They also would call us out if we went over break. They were like, ‘Hey, break’s over, let’s get going.’”

In fact, some of the younger actors in the show were with it back in 2020, when it was originally scheduled for the Majestic stage. That includes the two who were originally cast as Matilda in the 2020 production – Freya Harte and Elia Howe – and who auditioned again for the 2022 production, even though they had outgrown the role of Matilda over the previous two years.

“What a testament to their character,” Kelley said, “because they came back and auditioned, didn’t get the same parts they got before but stuck with the show even after we cast them in different roles. Here they are, two years later, happy. … I think that’s incredible.”

That’s the kind of passion that Kelley has felt for “Matilda” from the start.

Brady Moss is one of the two actors playing Miss Trunchbull, Matilda’s antagonist. (The other actor in the role is Bentley Michaels.) The directors double-cast key roles in the show. (Photo by Sabrina Dedek, Bellatrix Photographic.)

“I think it’s safe to say it’s a passion project, after four years,” they said. “It’s been a four-year journey, finally come to fruition. … I couldn’t be more proud of everybody. We say this a lot, ‘It takes a village,’ but it’s true. I could not have done this without each and every one of them. It’s definitely our show, and it has a lot of heart.”

If You Go

WHAT: “Matilda the Musical,” a production of the Majestic Theatre.

WHEN: Evening shows are set for 7:30 p.m. on four Fridays: April 29, May 6, May 13 and May 20. The remaining performances are 3 p.m. matinees, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday afternoons on April 30 and May 1, 7, 8, 14, 15, 21 and 22. The May 21 performance will feature American Sign Language translation.

WHERE: The Majestic Theatre, 115 SW Second St. in Corvallis.

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $11, $16 and $21 and can be purchased at the box office at the Majestic. The box office phone number is 541-738-7469. Tickets also can be purchased online by clicking on this link.

ISN’T THAT A LOT OF MATINEES? Yes, and deliberately so. Timothy John Kelley II, the co-director of the musical, said the idea is to encourage families to attend the matinees. “So we were like, ‘You know what? Let’s try all matinees on the weekend.’ It’s very much an experimental schedule. I’ve never done this before, which is exciting; I like doing new things.”

CORRECTIONS: The original version of this story misspelled the name of Sabina Berglund, who is one of the actors playing Matilda. It also listed an incorrect title for the song “My House.” Co-director Timothy John Kelley II uses them/they pronouns.

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