Brilliant Matilda from First Stage is an absolute triumph

Reese Bell and the Children of Matilda, The Musical, at First Stage

If there has ever been am on-stage testament to the glories of the theater community in Milwaukee it is now on parade at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center.

Led by a troupe of the most powerless among us, a cast of (dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?) children, First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank has ridden herd on a crowd that is deep in talent, brilliant in choice and enthusiastic in task.

It’s a magnificent production of “Matilda The Musical,” the imported British show that ran on Broadway and represents the first two-hour plus production that First Stage has ever done. I could have stayed for four hours, as could the capacity crowd on opening night.

“Matilda is based on the book by Roald Dahl and tells the story of a child – indeed all children – and the battles against tyranny, cruel punishments, stifled imagination and unjust discipline.

The musical tells the story of young Matilda (Reese Bell on opening night) who lives in a family with her father(Jackson Evans)  an idiot and crooked car salesman, her mother (Molly Rhode), a consummate ditz and her brother (Jonathan Neustifter in the Diligent Cast), a lump on a log.

Matilda retreats from the harsh behavior of her parents – including the fact that her father calls her “son” – by reading books, an activity that sparks horror in the rest of the family.

The story continues to its end, full of escape by children and fighting back by those same children. It’s a story about the power of imagination, creativity and determination.

This is an amazing production for any theater, but especially so for one that built an international reputation as a theater for children.

It has truly become a theater for children and families and nothing better exemplifies that than this production and the talents that went into creating it.

Let’s start behind the scenes where Mr. Frank has assembled an enviable bucket of talent.

Moving a cast of dozens around the small stage is a daunting task by the choreography is sparkling and full of the verve and excitement. Michael Pink, Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet and his wife, Jayne, created a series timeless and energetic dance numbers that were an absolute delight.

Jeff Schaetzke is Director of Artistic Operations at First Stage and a music director of unparallelled skill and achievement. He has directed at every level, from high school to top professional and each and every production is marked with the highest of standards and it’s the case here. This music is not seems simple but is full of complexities clearly translated by Mr. Schaetzke.

Jason Fassl is one of the greatest lighting designers in the country and in this, his 18th year designing for First Stage, he continues to use light as a weapon of mass instruction. You almost have the feeling that a play would be just as effective without dialogue as long is it had the evocative and brilliant lighting by Mr. Fassl.

Spectacular costumes from Arnold Bueso, a set from Brandon Kirkham and amazing sound design from Matt Whitmore added to the joy of this evening.

The cast is, simply, magnificent.

Led by a core of adult equity actors you can see how the young people lift their games so everyone is playing on an equal stage.

Kelly Doherty as the brutal headmistress and Mr. Evans are particularly skilled at capturing the brutality of the adults who damage the lives of the children, are especially glorious.

Elizabeth Telford is the teacher who recognizes and is amazed by the peculiar gifts of Matilda. But she understands that Miss Honey is a character with many layers and she finds each with clarity and passion.

And then there was Reese Bell who played Matilda on the night I saw the play.

Faced with a huge roll with song, dance and dialogue in front of her, this seventh-grader was more than up to the task. From the earliest moments you could feel the heart of the entire audience go out to this little girl and Miss Bell took our hearts of a journey from despair and fright to warmth and joy.

There is nothing in Milwaukee when First Stage is at the top of its game, and this one is even higher than the normal expectations for this marvelous company.

Production credits; Jeff Frank, Director; Michael Pink, Choreographer; Jayne Pink, Choreographer; Jeff Schaetzke, Music Director; Sheri Williams Pannell, Assistant Director; Molly Rhode, Dance Captain; Tyne Turner, Dialect Coach; Brandon Kirkham, Scenic Director; Arnold Bueso, Costume Designer; Jason Fassl Lighting Designer; Matt Whitmore,Sound Designer; Samuel Clein, Music Supervisor; Paul Westfahl, Drums/Percussion; Josh Robinson, Keyboards; Melissa L. Wanke, Stage Manager; Jade Bruno, Assistant Stage Manager; CArrie Johns, Second Assistant Stage Manager.

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