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“Revolting” Children

A fierce and witty adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book, "Matilda the Musical" offers subplots, dialogue, and lyrics that are denser and more nuanced than most tales of good versus evil.

Gina Conroy
March 28, 2020

Move over, Annie. Hit the road, Harry Potter. There’s a new girl in town: Matilda Wormwood. She’s not only sassy, sweet, and a straight-A student, but she’s fighting injustice with her extraordinary powers, and in the process, stealing the hearts of audiences young and old.

“Matilda is a genius. She’s a child prodigy, but her parents don’t care about that at all. They think she is the worst thing that could ever happen to them,” says 10-year-old Sunshine Smith, one of the two Matildas cast in Theatre Tulsa’s production of Matilda the Musical. “Matilda is kind but stressed all the time. She loves to read, and when she reads, she feels like she can get away from her awful life and become part of a story with the characters.”

“Matilda has superpowers and is very smart,” says Gigi Jenkins, 10, who also plays the lead role. “She knows right from wrong and stands up for other people.”

Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, Matilda the Musical has been a hit with children and adults since it debuted. Theatre Tulsa artistic director Sara Phoenix is thrilled to bring this quirky and clever tale to life in Tulsa. “It’s such a fun and creative piece of theater,” says Phoenix, who saw it on Broadway years ago and knew immediately that she wanted to direct it. “The Royal Shakespeare Company originally produced it in London, so you know it’s got some substance and artistic merit. It has everything you want in a good story: lively characters, a tenacious little girl, witty dialogue, a fantastic musical score, and the heroines who ultimately overcome adversity and persevere.”

Sometimes described as a mashup between Annie and Harry Potter, Matilda has some notable differences. A self-reliant, innovative prankster with magical powers, Matilda can hold her own. She’s the perfect heroine for a new generation.

Even though Matilda is dealing with her problems at home, she doesn’t want to tell anyone at school. “She doesn’t want to worry them, so she takes all of the stress into her mind and stuffs it away,” says Sunshine.

Gigi Jenkins as Matilda
Gigi Jenkins as Matilda

Sometimes Matilda gets into mischief and is dramatic. “She wants to protect her friends and Miss Honey, her teacher, from Miss Trunchbull, the evil principal who locks kids into the Chokey [a tall narrow cupboard with broken glass and nails],” says Gigi. “She’s not scared to stand up to her [Miss Trunchbull.] She wants justice.”

To describe the headmistress of Crunchem Hall as evil might be an understatement. With thick muscular shoulders and arms earned from her Olympic hammer-throwing championship days, she tortures the children in dramatic and vivid details. It’s no wonder Matilda wants to use her powers to rid the school of such wickedness.

Despite the dark themes, Phoenix says Matilda is “a lovely, intricate story with so much heart.” Phoenix admits people might be surprised at the dark moments, true to Roald Dahl’s original work, but she assures us that it’s nothing too frightening. This show is filled with laughter, sweet moments, and lots of magic, with some dazzling special effects.

“There are giant swings choreographed in one song, and it just has a little bit of everything for both kids and adults,” says Phoenix. “And we have a surprise cameo appearance at the end of the show that is just so fun.”

Funny, witty, and smart, Matilda is also poignant and rich in tone and themes.

Sunshine Smith as Matilda
Sunshine Smith as Matilda

One of the themes Matilda explores is pulling yourself out of adversity and finding others you can lean on. “It’s a story about how she navigates school and life by reading as many books as she can and using her imagination to lift her out of the darkness,” says Phoenix.

The decision to double-cast the role wasn’t a difficult one, and each girl will play five alternating performances.

“We had a ton of young actresses audition for the role, and we found two who we just loved,” says Phoenix. “It’s a big part because Matilda is the show, and she carries most of it. She has a lot of dialogue, vocal lines, and choreography. That’s a lot to ask of a 9 or 10-year-old child.”

Double-casting not only allows the two leads to shine in the role, but it adds an element of fun and excitement for the other actors because each Matilda is a little different, so it mixes things up.

“Both [girls] play the role a little differently, both equally wonderful,” says Phoenix. “It’s fun to see their different personalities and interpretations. And they are both great singers too.”

Although the lead character is a child, Phoenix wouldn’t classify it as a children’s musical.

“Kids will certainly love it, and the content is written for young people to enjoy. And of course, there are kids in the cast,” says Phoenix. “But ultimately, this musical speaks on another level to adults in a way that most kids won’t catch because their life experience is more limited.”

Phoenix, who’s spent a large part of her career working with kids, says she doesn’t get to work with children as much as she used to. “For me, it’s really fun because I’m working with the best of the best kids,” says Phoenix. Out of 80 kids who auditioned, only 12 spots needed to be filled. “They have to be talented and capable of working on an adult level because this isn’t youth theater. This is the main stage, and it’s all about putting on a quality show for our patrons.”

You would think with a cast mostly of children that it would be an additional challenge, but not for Phoenix.

“Any musical is a challenge,” she says. “I don’t find one with kids challenging, probably because I got my start teaching high school drama. In a lot of ways, kids can lighten it up.”

Over the years working with kids, Phoenix has found they don’t have egos to negotiate and work around. “You can push them a bit farther, and they will go with you and often exceed your expectations. I love watching that happen,” she says.

Both Gigi and Sunshine encourage children and adults to experience Theatre Tulsa’s performance of Matilda.

“It is full of emotions. When the characters are sad, the audience can feel that, and they get sad too. When the characters are happy, the audience can also feel that. Or if the characters are worried, angry, or frustrated, the audience feels empathy for Matilda and her friends,” says Sunshine. “Plus, the cast is awesome. You could go any day and see a great Matilda, and overall it is a great show.”  

Matilda the Musical
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St. | Tulsa
April 25: 8 p.m.
April 26: 2 p.m.
May 1: 8 p.m.
May 2: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
May 3: 8 p.m.
May 9: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
May 10: 2 p.m.