One of the most beloved heroines of 20th century children’s literature, Matilda Wormwood is known for her bookish brilliance, vivid imagination and telekinetic aptitude.
Matilda uses the power of her keen mind to tip a water glass without touching it and impersonate a ghost by making words appear on a chalkboard. The precocious grade-schooler also witnesses her nemesis, the abusive headmistress Miss Trunchbull, send a girl flying by her pigtails and watches another classmate thwart the treacherous Trunchbull’s vindictive scheming by making an entire chocolate cake disappear.
In its long-awaited return to the Civic Center stage for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is launching its summer season by making theater magic for the musical version of “Matilda.”
“We’re going to do our best to do sleight of hand, and lights play such a huge role when you’re dealing with magic or misdirection. Hopefully, I’m going to be able to have the audience looking one way when something else needs to happen over here,” explained “Matilda” director Ashley Wells.
“I’m not going to give away too much … but I would love for people to not go, ‘Oh, I know how they did that.'”
Recently named the “Official Theatre of the State of Oklahoma,” Lyric will stage the Oklahoma City professional premiere of the musical “Matilda” June 21-26 to launch its three-show “Summer at the Civic Center” season. It’s the first time Lyric has performed in its longtime summer home since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This might be the first musical that a lot of kids see, because they know ‘Matilda.’ They’ve either read the book or they saw the movie, and they want to see the musical. So, this might be an introduction to the musical theater world for a lot of people, for a lot of families, for a lot of kids out there. So, that’s really special, too,” said Wells, Lyric’s executive producer.
‘Matilda the Musical’ adapts 1980s children’s novel by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel “Matilda” centers on the bright and determined title character, who is neglected by her shallow parents, harassed by her dim-witted brother and targeted by the tyrannical Trunchbull once she starts school. But the girl also finds loyal friends, a nurturing teacher in Miss Honey and a brighter future at her school, Crunchem Hall.
The fantastical story had already been turned into a popular 1996 movie starring Mara Wilson, Rhea Perlman and actor-director Danny DeVito when “Matilda the Musical” was adapted for the stage by writer Dennis Kelly.
With music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and direction by Matthew Warchus, the musical was a commercial and critical hit.
“Matilda the Musical” won seven 2012 Olivier Awards — including Best New Musical — for its production on London’s West End, plus four 2013 Tony Awards following its debut on Broadway.
The musical’s U.S. tour didn’t route through OKC, so Wells said Lyric’s is the first professional production in town.
‘Matilda the Musical’ making OKC debut ahead of Netflix premiere
A few days ago, Netflix released the first trailer for its film version of “Matilda the Musical,” starring two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson as Trunchbull, Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood and Alisha Weir as Matilda. The movie musical will debut on the streaming service for the holiday season.
Lyric originally planned to stage the spirited song-and-dance spectacle in summer 2020 but had to postpone the production due to the pandemic.
“Now, I actually think this is probably a really great timing,” Wells said.
The OKC production of “Matilda” will star Lyric staple Matthew Alvin Brown as Trunchbull, Olivia Yokers as Miss Honey, and Andi Demi and Maggie Spicer Brown as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. Cassie Magrath and Elaina Dobey are sharing the title role.
“In essence, this is the longest we’ve ever worked on a show. It’s been three years. We started prepping it in 2019 to get ready for 2020. Now, here we are in 2022 finally doing it,” Wells said. “Because of COVID and finances, we’ve had to make changes … so that’s kind of been fun and interesting.”
Staging shows that are also films can be a mixed blessing for theaters
Staging a musical that has been popularized on film can be a mixed blessing: Movies can potentially boost interest in and expand the audience for a show, but they can also set the bar impossibly high for theater companies trying to recreate the kind of special effects in “Matilda” on stage with the limited budget of a nonprofit organization.
“Especially with movies that people have seen over and over again … you’re expecting to see the movie when you go to the theater. So, how are you going to make it special without having the luxury of all these different locations that they could go to in a movie?” said Courtney Strong, props designer for Lyric’s “Matilda.”
“It’s tough and it’s always tricky with these shows that people are very familiar with in movie form. Hopefully, though, we’ll be able to bring some of that magic here.”
Lyric designers team up to create ‘theater magic’ for stage show
As with most instances of “theater magic,” the seemingly supernatural scenes in “Matilda” actually are achieved through teamwork, ingenuity and persistence.
With “Matilda,” the props team is in charge of two key sequences: When Matilda is able to make a glass tip over with the power of her mind and when her classmate Bruce (Miller Dick) devours a whole chocolate cake. The latter isn’t an otherworldly moment, but to keep the story moving, it’s important to make the cake disappear.
Strong originally rented a rigged prop that another theater company had used to make the cake vanish, but she and her team couldn’t make it work for Lyric’s cast and crew. So, they had to devise another solution.
“We figured it out,” Strong teased. “I’m going to be baking real cakes every night for this show.”
Plus, she is working with Lyric resident costume designer Jeffrey Meek to devise the scene where Trunchbull hurls little Amanda (Kaylie Fitzpatrick) by her pigtails.
‘Challenging, but it’s so worth it’ to make magical moments work
Lighting designer Helena Kuukka is coordinating with Megan Reilly and Caleb Barnett, who are in charge of projections, to ensure other supernatural aspects of the show come to light properly.
“Anytime there’s projection elements in a show, the lighting trick becomes ‘How do you still … see what you want to see, but you’re not putting so much light into the mix that the projection doesn’t read?’ Sometimes lighting and projections can be mortal enemies,” Kuukka said.
“A huge part of lighting — which is true in any situation on stage, but it’s especially true when you’re dealing with special effects or any kind of magic-type moments — is you want to direct the eye where you want them to look and give misdirection where you don’t want them to look so that you don’t reveal the mechanics behind something that is supposed to look magical. … It’s challenging, but it’s so worth it.”
LYRIC THEATRE’S ‘MATILDA’
When: June 21-26.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.