NewArts 'Matilda' Plumbs Depths Of Dahl's Darkness To Redemption Theme
Producer/Director Michael Unger’s brow furrows as he begins describing the predominantly and decidedly dark story arc of this year’s NewArts musical premiere of Roald Dahl’s Tony-winning musical Matilda.
“Roald Dahl kind of hated the  adaptation of Willy Wonka [and the Chocolate Factory] film — it wasn’t his brand of darkness,” Mr Unger observed one recent afternoon shortly after a Matilda rehearsal wrapped for the day. “He’s a very dark writer and very good about bringing out these concepts of good and bad people. And there are certainly a lot of examples of negative behavior in Matilda. The adults, in fact, are just horrible.
“There are basically two good adults, and the rest are all monsters,” he adds, shaking his head.
Maybe this year’s NewArts undertaking delivers the theater company’s biggest stretch ever when it comes to very bad people who do bad things and a child or children who ultimately respond with incredible resiliency.
But it is nevertheless a powerful story full of us-versus-them side-taking, viciously funny pranks, and a pair of youthfully exuberant casts ready and willing to dance, sing, and act their way through to Matilda’s magical brightness at the end of that bleak tunnel Mr Unger was talking about.
The musical, as with last summer’s Newsies, is being presented in the cozy, two-tiered Masuk High School theater in neighboring Monroe. It is being staged at 7 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, August 2-3 and 9-10; and at 2 pm Saturdays and Sundays, August 3-4 and 10-11.
Mr Unger said Matilda mirrors the twisted concepts Dahl has showcased in films like James and the Giant Peach, and the more recent 2005 Johnny Depp adaptation of Willy Wonka.
“But he has such an incredible way of using irony and satire to teach what it takes to be a good person,” Mr Unger observed. “I see so many moments in this piece where our kids are connecting the material and the relations are coming together. It’s so moving I find myself crying in rehearsal, but it’s also hilarious as well. Nobody can do that like Dahl does.”
The message of “kids can change the world” has been a hallmark of NewArts productions since 2013 brought the then 12.14 Foundation’s debut of Seussical The Musical, and it has played out again and again in other productions like Joseph and The Technicolor Dreamcoat, School of Rock, Newsies, and the company’s own take on Willy Wonka in 2017.
“This one is more about how the kids have to fight for what they want because the societal structure doesn’t really give it to them,” Mr Unger said. “Mom and Dad should love you and take care of you, and they don’t in this play... at all. And that becomes obvious right away because they lack confidence, they lack vision, and they are very small-minded people.
“And it takes a little girl to show them how the world can work,” he added. “Through this main story, some subplots, and a little bit of telekinesis, it creates this incredibly moving journey of two people toward each other; it’s beautifully crafted.”
As in the past, Mr Unger has double cast the show with about 40 performers in each group. What’s different this year is that he has created one cast with predominantly older and more experienced actors and another with more comparable younger thespians.
“The younger kids are so into the dancing, and one of the more challenging aspects this year was to get the younger kids all engaged to the same level of choreography,” Mr Unger said.
Ducking into the final few minutes of a recent rehearsal provides evidence of the director’s observation, as choreographer Linda Talcott Lee flits from one group of dancers to another, shouting upbeat messages of encouragement while reinforcing dance moves and pieces of business designed to make the number really pop.
At the same time, on cue, Music Director Drew Nichols pounds on the keyboard, coaxing the necessary projection from the cast as they run the vocals along with their dance steps.
“They’re all in this together,” Mr Unger remarked as he watched the jumping and spinning youngsters.
“There are certain shows that are in the zeitgeist that every kid is obsessed with — and this is a big one. So we applied for the rights to Matilda the second it became available,” he said. “And since we got the rights so early, we were able to audition and begin hiring and pre-production work a lot sooner than in past summers. That took a lot of pressure off.”
Mr Unger said Matilda is also welcoming a mixed group of fledgling and veteran backstage support, who are working together to squeeze all they can into and out of the Masuk theater, with its cavernous fly space, deep stage, and huge orchestra pit.
“I think this year, our tech team is most robust,” he said “And it’s great to see them gaining skills through the things they are learning. They’re becoming more autonomous and reliable builders and technicians. We’ll rely on that hugely once we get into Masuk and give them a lot more responsibility.”
NewArts welcomes anyone interested in providing support to the nonprofit, marketing in the production’s program, or volunteering for backstage work or on days leading up to and through the performances. Learn more at newarts.org, or by calling 585-NEW-ARTS (585-639-2787).
Tickets for all shows are also available online — CLICK HERE. Prices are $12-$25 each, depending on seating location.