When “Matilda” debuts at The Muny Aug. 5-11, you’ll see a nod to a well-known St. Louisan, Mary Engelbreit, a distinctive artist whose work has been featured everywhere from greeting cards to T-shirts and everything in between.
“The Muny loves to call on any St. Louis talent, so we’ve combined her style, art and look, which is so well-known, giving it a brand new feel,” says show director John Tartaglia. “It’s a fun way to make a brand new version of the show using this amazing artist as inspiration. We’re using her design and style as the overall look, and then our costume, set and video designers are looking at her palette, patterning, color and every aspect of her art and infusing it into the show. She’s been so welcoming and opened up her treasure trove and has let us run with it.”
Combining the darker elements of “Matilda” with the brightness of Engelbreit’s work has been an enjoyable challenge for the production team.
“The story is kind of twisted and bizarre — kind of an angled look at the world — and Mary’s work tends to be very cheerful,” he says. “It’s been really fun for her to find elements of her work that are a little more off and dark that fit that Roald Dahl world we’re trying to create.”
The storyline from the book and 1996 film will be recognizable, but the theatrical format allows for a deeper dive into the characters.
“What musicals do best is get deeper into the heart of the character and reasonings as to why they do what they do,” Tartaglia says. “There’s so many little messages about the values of life and the importance of how you treat people. Oftentimes, we talk down to children, and they always know. They have a lot more to offer than adults sometimes give them credit for.
“Just because you’re little doesn’t mean you can’t do a lot, and just because you’re a kid doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to contribute to the world. It’s a show we need right now about a kid who stands up to a bully. It’s a wonderful message for families and kids. It’s going to give people a really positive, optimistic view of the world as they leave.”
Tartaglia, who is now directing his fifth Muny production, considers the beloved St. Louis landmark his summer home.
“We call it theater camp in the best way possible,” he explains. “It has this amazing feeling of family and, once you’re part of the family, it’s hard to ever leave. Everything we love about theater is realized there. It’s this amazing, well-oiled machine that just knows how to put on seven incredible shows. And Muny audiences are the most wonderful — they’re so appreciative. Theater under the stars; there’s nothing else like it. You can try to describe and explain it, but you just have to experience it.”