At first glance, director Mêlisa Annis’s production of “Matilda” at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College appears to be every kid’s dream. The sets are brightly colored, framed by human-sized stacks of books along the edges of the stage. The costumes are glittery representations of 2000s-era fashion. The mostly pint-sized cast performed musical numbers complete with double-dutch jump roping and functioning park swings. Not to mention I was probably the only person in the audience older than 12 who was not there to babysit.
The play is a pretty close adaptation of the 1996 movie inspired by Roald Dahl’s hit children’s book of the same name. It centers around the same premise: an intelligent young girl named Matilda is stuck in an abusive family who admonish her for preferring books to television and a school that more closely resembles a high-security prison than a place for learning.
When Matilda — played by Haley Ballard on the night I attended — goes to school for the first time, the sets turn dark and the vibrant outfits are swapped for dull uniforms. Even the score from the live orchestra gets eerie, accented by musical warnings from upperclassmen to watch out for the school’s infamous principal, Miss Trunchbull — played by Nathan Halvorson. It’s all surprisingly dark for a supposedly charming children’s show. If any children misbehave, Trunchbull forces them to endure physical abuse through such means as throwing them into a cupboard nicknamed “Chokey” or hurling them through the air like the Olympic hammer-thrower she once was.
Ballard’s performance, accompanied by Carmen Vreeman Shedd as Matilda’s beloved teacher Miss Honey, is what saves the play from becoming too disturbing. Though small in stature, Ballard has a huge stage presence; she performs every number with a smile and the energy that only a child has, and she spends a good portion of the play standing tall on top of chairs, platforms, and tables. She carries the play with songs of worlds she’s read about and created, using the stories to stand up for both her peers and teachers.
The play’s second act could use work. While the movie spends most of its runtime developing Matilda’s telekinetic powers as an important part of her identity, the play only briefly mentions her abilities at the end to fill a plot hole. Only a couple of scenes later, members of the Russian mafia — whose only distinguishing features are matching sunglasses and accents — are briefly introduced as a group of antagonists after her father; Matilda saves him by speaking to them in Russian, which she apparently knows. Yeah, they kind of skim over that one.
The musical is certainly questionable for a children’s story. But the children on stage are adorable and the overall themes of the play should be encouraged. The most commonly repeated lyric is “just because life ain’t fair it / doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it,” encouraging the idea that even the youngest among us can implement positive change. That’s an idea worth sharing with the next generation.