How do you solve a problem like “Matilda”? How do you handle the juggernaut it’s become? The quirky musical, about a neglected little girl with extraordinary powers, is based on a cartoonishly dark, oddball 1988 novel aimed at children by Roald Dahl, who also wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical is a huge hit on the West End, winner of an unprecedented seven Olivier Awards (the UK’s Tonys) and now, having opened on Broadway, a critic’s darling on both sides of the pond.
Loving this musical has become the default reaction; theatergoers can’t help but have heightened expectations, given Matilda Mania. And in a way, that’s too bad.
There is much to like in what is unquestionably one of the best new musicals of the Broadway season (its major competition to my mind is “A Christmas Story.”) “Matilda” offers dazzling stagecraft overseen by director Matthew Warchus, a faithful and intelligent book by David Kelly, and Tim Minchin’s clever lyrics. The production also, however, sometimes feels in need of a translator.
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There are superficial similarities between “Matilda” and “Annie.” Both are about mistreated girls who sing their way through to a happy ending. Unlike Orphan Annie, Matilda Wormwood is not an orphan, but she might as well be. Her father Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert), a crooked used-car salesman partial to green plaid suits and lame-brain sayings (“Good hair means a good brain”) , is appalled Matilda’s not a boy and keeps on mistaking her for one. Her mother (Lesli Margherita) a vulgar peroxide blonde who is obsessed with ballroom dancing, is indifferent to her child, and to anything resembling maternal duty. At one point she complains about her household chores: “Dinners don’t microwave themselves you know.” Mrs. Wormwood calls Matilda’s birth “the worst day of my life.” Both parents think Matilda reads too much: “That’s not normal for a five-year-old.”
And indeed it isn’t. At age 5, Matilda is reading “Crime and Punishment,” “Tale of Two Cities” and “Cat in the Hat”– her reading prowess just the first of her unusual gifts. She turns out to have Carrie-like telekinetic powers as well. (The musical smartly plays down these supernatural powers, which were emphasized in the 1996 movie starring Danny DeVito.)
Most of those around Matilda don’t appreciate how special she is, least of all Agatha Trunchbull, the headmistress of Crunchem Hall, the school that she attends. Miss Trunchbull was an Olympic hammer-throwing champion, and has the thick musculature, square shoulders, and angry stare to prove it. (Trunchbull is in fact played by a man, Bertie Carvel, reprising the role from the West End production.) Thanks to Miss Trunchbull, the school’s motto is “Bambinatum est maggitum” – children are maggots — and she treats them that way. Her tortures may be the most vivid moments in the show: At one point she makes a boy eat an entire chocolate cake because he swiped one piece, then locks him in the “chokey,” a cupboard lined with nails and bits of broken glass. Another time, she grabs a girl by her pigtails and throws her way up in the air; after what seems like forever, she falls back down into the orchestra.
Matilda’s adult champions are her teacher Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) and the librarian Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldredge) to whom Matilda tells fanciful Once Upon A Time stories that cleverly reveal her real longings for a loving family. These two characters offer Matilda — and “Matilda’s” audience — some of the few moments of warm feeling in a largely over-the-top comic enterprise so subversively scrubbed of sentiment that it could be called the anti-Annie.
The Wormwords and Headmistress Trunchbull are far more gruesome figures than Miss Hannigan the head of the orphanage in “Annie,” but Matilda herself is in some ways a more admirable little girl than Annie. Matilda is self-reliant. Annie is reliant on a sugar daddy. Annie is a boringly good girl, while Matilda is a deliciously naughty prankster, putting her Mum’s peroxide in her Dad’s hair tonic. She sets out her philosophy in the song Naughty:
Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change
In that same song, she finds it foolish that “love and fate and a little touch of stupidity” robbed Romeo and Juliet of their happiness.
“Annie” the musical, though, is still going strong around the world after three and a half decades (and in a current revival in New York) on the basis of its hummable tunes, such as “Hard-Knock Life” and especially “Tomorrow.” The closest to a memorable tune in “Matilda” is “When I Grow Up”: ”When I grow up,” the chorus of kids sings as they take turns on swings,
I will have treats every day
And I’ll play with things that Mum
Pretends that Mums don’t think are fun
Matilda was portrayed by Oona Laurence at the performance I attended, one of the four girls who are playing the role of Matilda in rotation – one-upping the three boys who alternated playing the lead of “Billy Elliot.” She had the proper no-nonsense demeanor that suits her character. But she didn’t have the diction to put over Minchin’s sometimes complex lyrics, and the result is often a muddle. There is something a touch Miss Trunchbullish in hiring almost all American actors and forcing them to put on British accents, which wind up being difficult for the audience to decipher. Nearly every New York reviewer, even the ones who rave hyperbolically, mention this problem, not just from Laurence but also from the other Matildas, and from the other child actors as well. But for some reason most play it down, as if making out the words were of minimal importance.
And in some ways, it does not matter, because the words and even the music can be seen as being at the service of what’s best about “Matilda” — the stagecraft. Rob Howell’s wondrous set is an explosion of Scrabble tiles, blocks and bookcases, and an occasional pile-up of TV sets. Hugh Vanstone enhances the magic with alternately cartoon-like colorful and strikingly dramatic lighting. Nearly every scene seems a playful painting come vividly to life, full of laser beams or trampolines. And every musical number hits its mark thanks to the exciting choreography by Peter Darling, best-known for “Billy Elliot.” Here Darling pays homage to Bill T. Jones’ jerky, defiant moves in “Spring Awakening” but devises an inventive and mischievous dance vocabulary that’s specific for the kids of “Matilda.” Paul Kieve is credited as the illusionist for “Matilda” as he was for the last effort on Broadway by director Matthew Warchus, “Ghost.” As in that musical, Kieve is the man responsible for some of “Matilda’s” most magical effects — such as that girl convincingly thrown up by her ponytails into the sky.
“Matilda” is as uplifting as any musical on Broadway, but in its own peculiar way. Those expecting another “Annie” or “The Lion King” or “The Sound of Music” are in for a shock.
At the Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street,
Book by Dennis Kelly; music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, based on the novel by Roald Dahl
Directed by Matthew Warchus; choreography by Peter Darling; sets and costumes by Rob Howell; orchestrations and additional music by Chris Nightingale; sound by Simon Baker; lighting by Hugh Vanstone; illusions by Paul Kieve
Cast: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro (Matilda), Bertie Carvel (Miss Trunchbull), Gabriel Ebert (Mr. Wormwood), Lesli Margherita (Mrs. Wormwood) and Lauren Ward (Miss Honey).
Erica Simone Barnett
John Arthur Greene
Luke Kolbe Mannikus
Madilyn Jaz Morrow
Celia Mei Rubin
Tamika Sonja Lawrence
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $37 – $277 Buy tickets