The spunky, smart title character – played with heart and gusto by 11-year-old Tate Sommer – is the youngest, most mature member of the wacky Wormwood clan. It's clear from the story's start (based on the 1988 Roald Dahl book), that Matilda is unwanted and unloved by those closest to her.
In a frenetic opening “Miracle,” the selfish Mrs. Wormwood (a flamboyant, over-dramatic Becca Johnson, in a huge blonde wig) is nine months pregnant and doesn't want another child; family planning is apparently not her strong suit.
Her equally obnoxious, childish hubby (played with boundless greed and narcissism by Brent Tubbs) wants to exchange the baby for a boy after birth. For most of the show, Mr. Wormwood refers to Matilda as a boy and insults her in countless, heartless ways.
You'd think after such unearned scorn and derision, Matilda would be a broken, defeated mess, but she's the opposite – strong, independent, brilliant and ready to take on the world.
Young Tate – who attends Bettendorf's Riverdale Heights Elementary – is similarly driven and energetic, making her heroic role an unpretentious role model for just about everyone on stage (the talented cast is made up 34 children and adults, who execute with flair and precision).
Special kudos to the kids for impressively realizing some neat, stylish choreography by Steph DeLacy in several ensemble numbers, such as “School Song” and “Revolting Children.” Getting to dance on desks and chairs must be especially fun for them.
Fortunately, in the rough-and-tumble new school (where students wear uniforms and the cruel motto is “Children Are Maggots”), Matilda finds an ally in the sweet, sympathetic teacher Miss Honey (a perfectly cast Olivia Lyman, who exudes goodness and a golden singing voice).
Honey's foil is the overbearingly mean Miss Trunchbull – the true, demonically evil villain of the story and the school's headmistress, who naturally hates children and teaching. While the silly Wormwoods seem fairly harmless, the cartoonish Trunchbull is the stuff of a small child's nightmares – played with manic glee by T.J. Green, he's big in every sense of the word: threatening, and imposing both physically and vocally. It's a tireless, tremendous performance, like a Miss Hannigan on steroids; Trunchbull's loathing of kids makes “Little Girls” seem like a tender reverie.
One of the show highlights is “Loud,” which features Johnson strutting her stuff with her colorful Latin dance partner, Rudolpho (a great Gary Mayfield), and the boisterous, joyful ensemble. A couple of the musical's clever visual effects (of which there are many) are when Green swings one of the girls around by her pigtails, and Brennan Hampton appears to eat a large chocolate cake during the first-act finale, “Bruce.” Does either actually happen?
Tubbs – co-owner of the Spotlight and husband of the super-gifted Sara, who makes her astounding solo directing debut here – enjoys a solo in the center of the thrust stage opening the second half. He makes it clear that “Matilda” does not condone reading, and asks the audience how many have read a book (Brent's improv skills are on display). It's a funny intro to the second act's first song, “Telly,” which sings the praises of lazily spending hours in front of a screen, not having to think.
Four girls in the cast get to sit on swings that are hung from the Spotlight balcony, and throughout the show, many of the students frolic throughout the theater, so keep those aisles clear!
As part of the story that "Matilda" tells within the play, to a riveted, compassionate librarian (strongly played by Myka Walljasper), Chase Austin is terrific and charismatic as an escapologist. In the second act, he becomes a protective, surrogate father for Matilda.
Especially with the seemingly pointless gym scene, where Trunchbull again seethes with disdain, the show drags somewhat and pushes three hours to the end. Matilda also has this superpower, but not much is made of it until a climactic revenge scene.
Lighting effects (also by Brent Tubbs) and the hanging wave of books above the stage are snazzy touches, which add to the magic the production aims to create. Performances continue this weekend; for more information and tickets, call 309-912-7647 or visit thespotlighttheatreqc.com.