Washougal Art & Music Festival

‘Matilda’ and the culture of joy

Portland Playhouse's musical-theater version of the Roald Dahl children's novel is enchanting for audiences of all ages.

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Susannah Mars, as the bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, with students in Portland Playhouse's "Matilda the Musical." Photo: Ela Roman
Susannah Mars, as the bullying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, with students in Portland Playhouse’s “Matilda the Musical.” Photo: Ela Roman

Matilda the Musical would be a gigantic lift for any theater company, and isn’t an obvious choice for Portland Playhouse, a small-but-mighty theater that stages its productions inside the former Mt. Sinai Baptist church in the historically Black King neighborhood of Northeast Portland.

Besides some meaty adult roles, the cast of Matilda — based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s tale — is dominated by children, and lots of them. They participate in most of the production numbers, and the role of Matilda herself is a demanding one. Casting children generally means double-casting or, as for this production, triple-casting.

That said, Portland Playhouse has made some extensive commitments to creating a more equitable and humane theater industry, adopting specific antiracist and workplace health practices and aspiring to create a “culture of joy” that “center[s] diverse people and perspectives.”  Might working with children, who require significant accommodation but who also operate from a different, looser, and often more playful set of assumptions, support those goals?

According to co-founding artistic director Brian Weaver, who also directed the Playhouse’s Matilda at the suggestion of his own daughters, it did. And the themes of the show can only have helped: Matilda is about a child genius who is also humble and a team player, a wonderful peer who uses her powers to work against injustice. In her genius way of thinking, more advanced than the adults’ around her, “If it’s not right, you have to put it right.” 

The adult cast includes some of the giants of theater in Portland and elsewhere, including Susannah Mars as the bullying headmistress of Matilda’s school, Miss Trunchbull, and Merideth Kaye Clark as Miss Honey, a kindly teacher whose concern for Matilda helps her find her voice. They are all in top form in this production, which asks a lot of them.

Getting playful: James Alexander Lovely, Austin Comfort & Chenoa Johnson. Photo: Ela Roman
Getting playful: James Alexander Lovely, Austin Comfort & Chenoa Johnson. Photo: Ela Roman

According to Weaver, the rehearsal process was “90 percent aggravating and 10 percent pure bliss—just like parenting.” It was a master class in patience and flexibility for the cast and crew. Children need breaks, and snacks, and repetition; how to balance getting it perfect and working with the capacity of the humans in your cast, some of whom are as young as 6, is no mean feat. 

The resulting production indeed evinces a culture of joy onstage. No one is holding back — least of all the children, who sing and dance their hearts out. They drive nearly all of the action, and are virtually always in motion — and choreographer Kemba Shannon brought her impressive base of experience to bear (grounded in love, according to Weaver) to elicit performances that will keep audiences smiling for the entire two-and-a-half hours of the show. 

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Mars is an especially fantastic headmistress, holding in perfect balance the comedy and menace that somehow render Miss Trunchbull a perfect villain, whose victims are children. And Weaver’s directorial choice to cast the same two actors — Dana Green and (at opening) Alec Cameron Lugo — as Matilda’s noxious parents and also as the heroes of the story she tells throughout the play works especially well. As Weaver notes, that casting captures a sense in which parents occupy the roles of heroes and villains for their children. It also renders the conclusion of Matilda’s story arc more poignant.

This show is not to be missed, and even merits three viewings so as to catch the different cast configurations at work. Weaver reports that the three Matildas — the delightful Nia Scott (who I saw at opening), Lily Francis, and Georgia Krugel — who did not know each other before this production, naturally formed a collaborative culture of care.

The musical is full of gems of wisdom that will inspire adult audience members; Matilda’s capacity to turn experiences of oppression into wisdom and to employ naughtiness for good are heroic in the best way.

And there is much to enchant children, who were an essential part of the audience at opening (including my own grandson, enjoying his first experience of a full-length production). Matilda the Musical — the show and this production — can move us all past our failures of imagination to envision a more cooperative world. 

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Matilda the Musical

  • Company: Portland Playhouse
  • Where: 602 N.E. Prescott St., Portland
  • When: Wednesdays-Sundays through Nov. 5
  • Ticket information: Here; several performances are sold out.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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