Parents often have high hopes and are disappointed if their children do not live up to them. The opposite is true for the Wormwoods, in the Roald Dahl novel named “Matilda.”
Their daughter, Matilda, at five and a half, is intellectually precocious and telekinetic. This means that she can move objects without contact or other physical means. While Matilda devours classic books, her parents live on TV and are dismissive to her powers, to say the least.
Things are not much better at school, where Miss Agatha Trunchbull is the tyrannical headmistress. However, there is only one teacher who encourages Matilda to be who she is.
The 1988 novel was turned into a show, “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.” Dennis Kelly adapted the novel, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.
Performed first in England, the musical enjoyed its Broadway premiere in 2013. Now it is coming to Olney Theatre Center, with Emiko Dunn in the title role.
The production marks the musical’s area premiere and it is directed by Peter Flynn, who is also making his Olney debut.
“‘Matilda the Musical’ is a wonderful balance of innocence and dark humor and self-initiative,” Flynn said. “It’s complex. Regardless of all the sadness and anger of her life, Matilda knows perseverance is the key to all that the power is in her mind if she believes it.”
“One of the cool things about the show is that it’s dark but also comedic. It’s not cut and dried,” Tracy Lynn Olivera, who plays Mrs. Wormwood, said. “Comedy puts reality under a microscope and magnifies it. If ‘Matilda’ weren’t funny, you’d have to look at the main character’s parents as abusive and neglectful.”
Still, Olivera does not consider her character to be as villainous as Cinderella’s stepsisters, one of whom she played recently.
“Mrs. Wormwood is more like an archetype,” she said. “I like to play these characters as silly; they’re walking cartoons and over-the-top, who are not as scary as they are funny.”
At the same time, Olivera commented, one cannot forget the hurt feelings under the musical’s humor. A bigger challenge, she said, is the level of dancing in the show.
Sometimes, children’s theaters cast adults as youngsters, but Artistic Director Jason Loewith and Flynn decided to cast children as children. Ranging from ages 9-14, they all are double-cast, except for Dunn, who appears in all performances.
“One nice thing about an intergenerational cast is that young people bring a perpetual sense of wonder, an ability to open up and make truthful choices,” Flynn said. “You just have to slow down the process, so the younger performers understand it but also feel included.”
While “Matilda the Musical” carries a message, the director said he hopes it will be subtle, as is the case in good literature. “It’s always for the audience to find out, not heavy-handed,” he said.
Speculating on why Dahl chose a girl as his hero, Flynn said it is “unexpected for a young female to be the smartest person in the room. To have the greatest sense of irony and most perseverance. Girls are seen as less resistant, more accommodating.”
Of course, Dahl and Matilda tell us that is not so.
The author also wrote “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Music Director Chris Youstra heads a nine-piece band playing music Flynn called “a little mercurial but also simple and quirky.”
Ultimately, a show with dark moments depends on how it’s handled, Olivera said. “If you look at Dahl’s illustrations in his books, they’re silly and sort of make you forget what’s happening. The way Peter handles the musical is funny and sensitive. I’d do anything theatrically Peter is directing.”
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” runs June 21-July 21 at Olney Theatre Centre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. www.olneytheatre.org.