How set and costume designer Rob Howell made 'Matilda the Musical' work

The “Matilda the Musical” you can see during a two-week Fort Lauderdale run starting April 25 almost looked totally different.

That’s because set and costume designer Rob Howell originally had another aesthetic for the stage musical based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl that is coming to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

“I spent a long, long time thinking the answer to all of our scenery design should evolve through the language of school desks,” Howell recalls. “I was thinking that if you had school desks, you could have things popping out of them and you could have school desks floating around. But I couldn’t get the school desks to be anything other than school desks. Once you make them a bright color, they were really not school desks, anymore. It was an idea that folded back on itself in an uncomfortable way.”

And a West End (2011), then Broadway (2013) musical needs color. Especially one taken from the dark and offbeat imagination of Dahl, the author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “James and the Giant Peach.” The New York production won four Tonys, including Best Scenic Design of a Musical for Howell, who also designed “Boeing-Boeing” and “Ghost the Musical” for the Great White Way.

“So it took me … five or six weeks to try and come up with another idea,” Howell says. “And I landed on the idea of tiles. … I thought Scrabble tiles can be a different color and still be what it is. Now, I can make this space feel like a musical. I can make it playful and colorful.”

“Matilda the Musical” tells the story of 5-year-old Matilda Wormwood, a bookworm with a vivid imagination and telekinesis that she uses to negotiate the cruelties of school life and the horrors of indifferent parents. Howell says the costumes reflect how Matilda sees the world around her.

“So if she sees her mom and dad as these loud vulgarians, then that gives me license to turn up the volume on the loud and vulgar suits they wear,” he says. “And if she sees Trunchbull [the terrifying school headmistress and former hammer-throwing champion], with a sort of incredibly muscular body that has gone to seed, that gives me license to amplify that with the silhouette we have of Trunchbull.”

Howell also managed to work in two sly references to the work of Quentin Saxby Blake, Dahl’s longtime illustrator.

“Someone said, ‘You need to design a badge on [the children’s] blazers, and I thought this was a chance, in an under-the-radar way, to sneak in some Quentin,” Howell explains. “I wrote to him and asked … if he was up to it, could he give us a quick sketch. He responded, ‘I’d love to.’ He was very, very generous and sent us a drawing, and then I used it for the architecture of Crunchem Hall [the school at the center of the show] and the drawing on the blazer. It’s very nice seeing his work joining in our production … He’s been very, very supportive.”

And the feeling, something Howell says came from his own childhood, informs all his work for the show.

“Well, I remember this TV program, ‘Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected’ and he would sit in this marvelous armchair and read slightly scary stories,” Howell says. “When I was younger, I knew his books, as well. He has a very special place in most kid’s minds of my generation. He was working in an adult way for kids and in a childlike way for adults. He lived at that crossroads with his work. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at the time, but later on, I came to realize that I somehow knew he wasn’t patronizing me. I think we all carry with us this memory of being affected by Roald. He was rude, naughty and scary — all the things you want as a kid, but that adults think that you don’t want. But that's what kids want.”

“Matilda the Musical” runs April 25-May 7 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 30), with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and 1 p.m. matinees Sundays. Tickets cost $35 to $145. To order, call 954-462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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