The children are revolting.
Or so a song tells us in the hit musical “Matilda,” which makes a stop at the Fox Theatre April 18-23. The Tony-winning show, which is based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel about a precocious little girl who leads a rebellion against her bullying school principal, doesn’t shy away from Dahl’s wicked sense of humor and subversive edge. In Dahl’s world, children and adults alike are often revolting, in both senses of the word, and the show’s creators and performers say they sought to capture the humorously naughty spirit of Dahl’s work in the musical.
Developing a look and demeanor for the book’s memorably nasty villain, Miss Agatha Trunchbull, was therefore central to the show. “She’s kind of explosive when she’s on stage,” says actor Dan Chameroy, who plays the brutish headmistress. “She’s a bundle of nerves and energy. She’s jumping or leaping or throwing people around. Any actor who takes on the role of Trunchbull has to be in good physical condition.”
Chameroy says the character and the musical very much honor the spirit of the original book rather than the much lighter 1996 Hollywood film. “It’s a family show without a doubt,” he says. “But the musical honors very much what the book is. There’s a darkness to his characters and stories. It’s not fluffy. It’s like ‘Harry Potter.’ It lives in a world where there’s an edge to it.”
As in the book, everything about the dreaded Miss Trunchbull is extreme. Coming up with an appearance to match Dahl’s character was an interesting task, says set and costume designer Rob Howell.
“I spent quite a lot of time with the Roald Dahl Estate, researching and digging around,” he says. “Roald Dahl describes Miss Trunchbull’s clothes in somewhat more detail than he describes everybody else’s look. … Somebody at the estate said to me, ‘Well, he was very good friends with this horticulturalist called Beatrix Havergal.’ They dug out a picture, and sure enough, there she is wearing this weird-looking smock. She has these sort of coarsely knitted knee socks and brogues. It was absolutely clear to me that’s who Roald Dahl had in mind when he was thinking about what Trunchbull would look like. In terms of primary reference, that was gold dust for me.”
For the set, coming up with a totally new look that responded to Dahl’s original world, rather than simply imitating the famous drawings of the author’s frequent collaborator, illustrator Quentin Blake, was key, Howell says.
“Everybody knows the visual world Quentin Blake has come up with repeatedly and brilliantly for Roald’s work, but the process for us wasn’t to stand up Quentin Blake’s drawings,” he says. “We do different jobs. If you look at the show in real detail, there’s nothing there that is Quentin at all. It’s because I was responding to the book that Roald Dahl had written, just as Quentin Blake had done. As a group and creative team, that’s how we approached it.”
The show originated in Dahl’s native England, and it retains much of its English character, style and humor. The show had its first production at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and throughout the subsequent productions, many of the adult members of the cast and crew (and some of the children) have a strong background in classical theater.
“The more diversity you can have in your career, it always feeds into the next job,” says Chameroy. “For me, Shakespeare is one of the greats. The fact that words drive your performance helps with anything you do. … What I like about the play is that it honors ‘Matilda’ as literature. It’s not a dumbed-down version of the book.”
“What we grow up with at school and what we’re lucky to be surrounded by is trust in the spoken word,” agrees Howell, who has designed often for productions of Shakespeare’s works. “You start to understand you don’t need to build a lot on stage because Shakespeare has done a lot of the work for you with the language. If you trust the words and the skill of the writer, your audience will want to play the game of filling in the gaps. It’s an incredibly valuable lesson because it means you don’t have to re-create everything on stage because the words are in the air, doing a lot of the work for you.”
$33.50-$128.50. 7:30 p.m. April 18-20; 8 p.m. April 21; 2 and 8 p.m. April 22; 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 23. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-881-2100, http://foxtheatre.org.