Bookstores and libraries are filled with childrenâ€™s books which teach life lessons, tell stories of survival, and have engaged and delighted fans for generations.
Then thereâ€™s Roald Dahl who managed to do exactly that with his books, but with his slightly subversive take on life and childhood, Dahl brought a very different spin on surviving childhood.
Whether it was Charlie Bucket of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who faced poverty and starvation in his daily life, or James Henry Trotter, the little boy who faces neglect and abuse at the hands of his vile aunts in James and the Giant Peach, the young heroes who star in Dahlâ€™s books could easily be viewed as victims.
But significantly, they never see themselves in that light. They understand they deserve more love, more respect, more of everything than their meager lives have offered thus far. And of course the good children are victorious while the villains often face a major serving of karma.
Musical version of the tale
All of that is certainly true of the young heroine in Matilda, which Dahl published in 1988. A popular film was made in 1996, and the Broadway musical version debuted in 2013.
It is that latter version that debuts at Fort Wayneâ€™s Civic Theatre next week, and the production features a collaboration between the Civic and Fort Wayne Youtheatre, fitting since half of the cast are children.
Dahlâ€™s work is hardly new to Youtheatre, having staged James and the Giant Peach three years ago and collaborating with University of Saint Francis on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a few years before that.
Once the Civic Theatre had decided to stage Matilda, the call went out to Christopher J. Murphy, assistant and outreach director for Youtheatre and director of this production.
Murphy was familiar with a few of the songs from the musical but had never seen the show or film and had never read the book. That changed quickly once he had the offer to direct, and he found the story immediately engaging.
The Power of Creativity
â€śWhat I love about it, and have tried to make the focus of our show, is the power of creativity,â€ť Murphy said. â€śItâ€™s about the power of the brain, the power of imagination. This girl lives in terrible circumstances. She has terrible parents, a selfish brother, and a wretched headmistress that she has to deal with. Sheâ€™s not big enough to defend herself in any other way, so she uses her creativity to create a world in which she gets to live a life she deserves. Itâ€™s a powerful message.â€ť
What has made Dahlâ€™s work so timeless is his unflinching look at lifeâ€™s inequities and challenges. Murphy said that the musicalâ€™s author, Dennis Kelly, has said that itâ€™s that quality which is most worthy of respect.
â€śKelly has said that what he loves about Dahl is that he doesnâ€™t lie to children,â€ť Murphy said. â€śAdults lie to children all the time, but Dahl is telling them that life is not perfect. Life is hard. But you can rise above that.â€ť
With a cast of 32 characters and 33 actors (there are two young actresses alternating performances as Matilda), Murphy spent the first two weeks working with half the cast at a time so by the time he merged rehearsals, much of the heavy lifting had already been done.
â€śFor the first couple weeks I had the kids coming in to rehearse at Youtheatre times in the afternoon. Then I had the adults coming in at Civic times so they were in the evening. Then on the third week I brought them all together, and it was just putting the puzzle pieces together and making a picture.â€ť
Murphy credits his production crew â€“ which includes assistant director Lindsay Hoops, musical director Eunice Wadewitz, and choreographer Mandie Kolkman â€“ with helping the cast seamlessly blend after their initial rehearsals apart. He also credits the cast with preparation beforehand.
â€śThe kids came in with more knowledge about Matilda,â€ť Murphy said. â€śIâ€™m not sure if thatâ€™s from previous knowledge or because we provided them with a lot of material before the auditions. But one of our actors, Rebecca Nelson, came into it very excited because it had been her favorite book growing up.â€ť
For fans of the book who have not yet seen the musical version, Murphy promises some great music which is very much in keeping with Dahlâ€™s own writing style.
â€śThe music is very quirky and energetic, and the lyrics are witting and clever. Very Roald Dahl-esque with unexpected word choices and wordplay. Itâ€™s very off-kilter, not what youâ€™d expect at all. They very much fits into the kind of world that Dahl creates.â€ť
There is also a subplot that Murphy said is so perfectly suited to the story that the book now feels a bit empty without it.
â€śWithout spoiling the story, thereâ€™s an added element to Matildaâ€™s visits to the library and her talks with Mrs. Phelps,â€ť Murphy said. â€śShe tells Mrs. Phelps a story, a bit of it each day, and itâ€™s a way for her to escape. You do find out more about the story as she tells it, and itâ€™s one of the most beautiful parts of the show.â€ť
Working with the cast
Murphy, an active director in other theaters outside of Youtheatre and the Civic Theatre, has enjoyed diving into this alternate universe but has also found an additional reward in working with this cast.
â€śOne of the things Iâ€™ve really enjoyed as a director, something I donâ€™t normally get to do, is take all the kids I love in my day job and all the adult actors that I work with at places like Arena Dinner Theatre and First Presbyterian and put them together in one group.
â€śItâ€™s great for the younger actors to work with people like Mason Hunter, Todd Frymier, Jim Nelson, Olivia Rang, but I also love to see the adults watching the kids and seeing them glowing with pride. Itâ€™s been really great to watch.â€ť
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