My expectations for the new Broadway musical, Matilda, were quite high what with all its pre-opening hype and pedigree of having swept London’s Olivier Awards (the equivalent of our Tony Awards) in 2012. Fortunately, except for a bit of tedium in Act II, Matilda delivers an enchanting and magical theatrical experience to audiences both young and old.
Based on the Roald Dahl children’s book, Matilda tells the story of young Matilda Wormwood, a precocious and highly intelligent young girl born into a family of lower class slackers. Dad is a wheeler-dealer always looking for an easy score through one of his shady deals. Mom, a loud-mouthed spendthrift, is only concerned about money and her next dance competition with partner Rudolfo. Their perpetually dazed son, Michael, rounds out the dysfunctional household. Matilda is continuously ignored and verbally assaulted by her uncaring and unresponsive parents especially in her desire to learn and read books. Her parents treat her predilection for reading as if the Ebola virus had invaded their home. For her mother, father, and brother the Telly (television) is the sole source of entertainment and information. Matilda’s salvation is the local library where, in addition to consuming every book in sight, weaves a magical story of escapism for the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, as well as for her own sanity.
Finally of age to attend elementary school she is thrown into a nightmarish, crumbing institution, Crunchem Hall, overseen by the menacing and formidable principal, Mrs. Trunchbull who regards children as insignificant gnats. Matlida’s liberation is her teacher, the sweet Miss Honey, who recognizes the young child’s intelligence and need to belong. Together they eventually overcome the obstacles in both their lives to live, as they saying goes, happily ever after.
For a musical like Matilda to succeed the show needs a young girl with fortitude, presence and spunk. This production doesn’t have one, but four juveniles who, in rotation during the week, play the adolescent Matilda. On the night I saw the show Oona Laurence was in the lead and she was fearless throughout the production—singing, dancing, and performing like a certified professional. It was rather extraordinary for such as small lass to anchor such a large-scale musical.
The real star of the show is Bertie Carvel as the monstrous headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. He comes across as a combination of Richard III and Gru from the Despicable Me movie. He is vindictive, loathsome, and horrid to the students under his watch. Carvel doesn’t walk or strut across the stage, but rather glides. He is the spark to Matilda. His presence on stage is always great fun even as he trashes everyone and everything in his sight.
Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita, as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, are vapid, self-centered irritants. Their more over-the-top performances accentuate the plight of poor Matilda, trying to fit in, belong, and feel wanted. Lauren Ward, a Sweet Polly Purebread type, meek at first finds her resolve towards the musical’s end.
Upon entering the Shubert Theatre, audience members are treated to Set Designer Rob Howell’s visually spellbinding set of colorful, vibrant scrabble-like tiles affixed to the walls of the stage from floor to ceiling. They evoke a world of learning, both magical yet ominous. His sets in the latter half of the show perfectly capture the Dickensian-themed nature of Crunchem Hall.
Roald Dahl’s story is dark and cheerless, with comedic thrusts. Book writer Dennis Kelly faithfully adapts Dahl’s book to the musical theater stage. There is whimsy, playfulness, and foreboding all wrapped up in a big Broadway musical. Composer Tim Minchin’s score is mischievous, quirky, and very tuneful.
The children in Choreographer Peter Darling’s large-scale production numbers come out with bursts of kinetic, nervous energy. They almost attack the dance routines in a combative, rebellious manner.
Director Matthew Warchus always seems to have the perfect touch whether helming a comedy, drama, or a big, splashy musical. In Matilda, he keeps the action flowing from scene to scene. He allows his actors to shine, giving them their moment on stage as demonstrated by Bertie Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull. I only wish he and librettist Dennis Kelly would have teased out the production a bit longer as the climatic scenes of enchantment, wonder, and comeuppance tumble out too quickly.
Matilda, family fare of a different type, settling in for a long run on Broadway.