Review: MATILDA at the Folketeateret
‘Matilda – the musical’ has wit, intelligence, heart and soul. Seeing him again in his Norwegian incarnation is, as the opening song says, “A Miracle.” Many young stars were born yesterday at the Folketeatret in Oslo.
Based on the 1988 novel ‘Matilda’ by (Norwegian) Roald Dahl, the musical was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and has a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by comedian/singer-songwriter Tim Minchin (his first musical theater score). It’s the story of an unwanted girl who turns out to be a prodigy. Mr. Wormwood (Fridtjov Såheim)t is a dodgy used-car salesman who rather mindlessly sells slammed bangers to the Russian mafia. Ms. Wormwood (Siren Jørgensen) has a fondness for Latin American dancing and dresses in garish costumes. The Wormwoods do not love their daughter Matilda intensely. They do not understand his interest in books and encourage him to look like his older brother and fall into a coma in front of the “TV”. And Mr. Wormwood even goes so far as to call Matilda a “boy”, even though she repeatedly corrects him. When Matilda leaves for school, she surprises her teacher Miss Honey (Maren Ovida) with her math skills and intelligence. But she falls for the child-hating headmistress, former hammer thrower Miss Trunchbull (Robert Stoltenberg).
Matilda has one of the strongest scores in musical theater written after 2010. Tim Minchin’s comedic songs are brilliantly smart for all ages. From the opening number ‘Miracle’ to the hilarious ‘The Hammer’ and ‘Loud’ to the final Act 1 ‘Bruce’, every song is crafted to perfection. The second act begins with the fantastic “Telly” and “When I Grow Up” uses swings to bring it to life. Minchin and Kelly continuously attack where it hurts the Walt Disney way Empire could only dream, drawing a line between the fears and injustice of childhood and the inevitable disappointments and frustrations of growing up.
Having the students of Crunchem Hall School play child and adult actors only enhances that, and at the end of “When I Grow Up” when Matilda and her friendly teacher duo, they don’t just sing as one – they might as well be the same person.
Even though I’ve heard this song many times since it was released in 2010, it still brings tears to my eyes and makes me realize that I’m still a 47-year-old kid with love issues.
As in London and New York, three young performers share the title role, and the show lives or dies on their energy. Matilda has many complications, which isn’t easy for a young actor, but on opening night, Henny Stålhand Arnø nailed her character’s confidence and contemplation. She sings perfectly with excellent text delivery. This is star quality at its finest! The other Matildas, played by Othilie Loftesnes Gilbrant and Agnes Sulejewski Bjerckwill, will no doubt be just as good, with their own spin on the character.
Robert Stoltenberg is a genius choice as Miss Trunchbull and shows the right mix of villainy and comedy. He really owns the scene since his first appearance, I always imagined he had a good singing voice, and he didn’t disappoint. Those expecting Stoltenberg to draw inspiration from many of his own female characters will have to think again. Miss Trunchbull is completely “animal” and I love it.
Siren Jørgensen and Fridtjov Såheim, as Matilda’s parents, are really, really bad, in a wonderful way. Jørgensen revels in her cruelty and it’s obvious she’s having fun with her role, so yet another home run for her. Såheim made his debut in musical theater and we understand why he was chosen to play Mr. Wormwood. His comedic talents are in full play, so he and Jørgensen have the right kind of nasty chemistry together.
Maren Ovida makes her professional debut as Mrs. Honey and gives a solid performance. She embodies the kindness and warmth of the character. She also has a wonderful diction. Every word of Atle Halstensen’s complex text is audible. Very well. Haddy Njie plays Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who loves listening to Matilda’s stories. Njie doesn’t have much to do as Phelps is a pretty passive character. But she too has just the right empathy and passion to make it work.
The set is excellent and complies with international standards. A special mention has to go to Sigurd Martiniussen who plays the doctor in the opening number, as well as several characters throughout the show. His beautiful tenor voice really comes to his right every time he’s on stage. Kudos also to Carl Martin Prebensen as Rodolpho, who steals every scene with his Latin moves. Very funny.
But overall, as stated before, the essential ingredient of this show is the kids, and if they’re talented enough to carry it on their young shoulders, and boy are those kids talented. They left me speechless more than once during the evening. Their harmonies and especially their dancing skills are of international level. Special mention has to go to Eilev Elnes Hovengen as Bruce (what a voice) and Leah Louise Borgen-Johansen as Lavender. They both co-starred for several moments and impressed me a lot. The other kids playing tonight were Emmy Allum Rønstad, Isabella Døvigen Sundby, Christine Gårdmoen, Leo Kristoffer Lyngvær, Oliver Dahl and Getuar Dihle Haaland. Congratulations to all.
The direction and choreography are based on the original direction by Matthew Warchus and Peter Darling. Ewan Jones, Stephanie Bron and Frode Gjerløw managed to make it fresh and new. Rob Howell’s costumes and sets are beautifully crafted by resident designers, Sally Page Turner and Petr Hlousek. The countless alphabet cubes that make up most landscapes are epic and amazing.
The musicians under the direction of Bendik Eide are precise and straight to the point. It’s really rewarding to have the “West End” sound in an Oslo concert. Original orchestrations by Christopher Nightingales have been condensed, by musical director Atle Halstensen, without losing their freshness and punch.
Tim Minchin’s original lyrics witty and full of clever rhyme, almost rivaling Stephen Sondheim. I’m sure it caused both pain and headaches to translate this and make it fit well, while still keeping the original spirit of the piece. Luckily, the end result is a really good and accurate translation, done by Atle Halstensen, with just enough “local” references to make it feel relevant to Norwegian audiences. He also keeps the spirit of Roald Dahl which is a huge bonus.
Matilda is truly one of the most satisfying and subversive musicals of recent years. Not so long ago, det norske teatret presented another musical based on the works of Roald Dahl, namely ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. But to say it’s musical is in a category of its own would be an understatement. For my part, I am very much in favor of presenting productions in their original incarnation, and of not trying to reinvent the wheel, when it is that strong.
In my opinion, this is Scenekvelder’s best production to date. It’s a show not to be missed!
Photo credit: Fredrik Arrf