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Matilda: Theater Review

Matilda Production Still - H 2013
Joan Marcus

The Bottom Line

This captivating musical about a pint-sized protagonist is a giant in terms of its charm and originality.

Venue

Shubert Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast

Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Bertie Carvel, Gabriel Ebert, Lesli Margherita, Lauren Ward

Director

Matthew Warchus

After winning a record seven Olivier Awards in London, the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's novel reaches Broadway with all of its considerable magic intact.

NEW YORK – Any show that arrives from London fueled by as much critical and commercial fanfare as Matilda can hardly be called a surprise. Yet the capacity for constant surprise, and an almost overwhelming sense of wonder at the magic of storytelling – and by extension, stagecraft – are central to the experience of this dazzlingly inventive musical. Capturing the unique flavor of Roald Dahl’s classic 1988 children’s novel, this funhouse fairy tale is by turns riotous and poignant, grotesque and menacing, its campy comic exaggeration equaled only by its transporting emotional power. I can’t wait to see it again.

Developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which hatched the global blockbuster Les Miserables in 1985, the show has been adapted with narrative ingenuity, wit and enormous heart by playwright Dennis Kelly, not to mention deep respect for the source material and a lunatic spirit that harks back to The Goon Show. It also boasts a striking score by Australian comedian and singer Tim Minchin, the melodiousness of which owes a debt to both music hall and Britpop, from the Beatles through Madness to Blur. Minchin’s playful lyrics can be beautiful in their simplicity or hilariously clever in their irreverence.

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Every element of conception and design here is invaluable, but the whimsical wizard behind this superlative children’s theater for all ages is Matthew Warchus, whose attention to detail carries through to a lovely curtain-call surprise. While the director proved himself a peerless comedy ringmaster with such productions as Boeing-Boeing, God of Carnage, The Norman Conquests and La Bete, his choice of major musical vehicles – The Lord of the Rings and Ghost – has been unfortunate. But those missteps are instantly erased with Matilda, in one thrilling number after another. Most musicals are lucky to count a showstopper or two, but this has several, encompassing a rich tonal spectrum.

Danny DeVito’s 1996 movie of Dahl’s book preserved the sinister eccentricity, but it altered the tone by making an Americanized human cartoon out of a quintessentially British story. This incarnation not only reclaims its national roots but tethers them to the imaginative realm of prose fiction even before the show starts. Designer Rob Howell’s versatile set is a literal explosion of books and alphabet building blocks that spills out around the proscenium, in much the same way the spooky shadows or vibrant rainbow shades of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting wash beyond the stage over the audience.

Five-year-old genius Matilda (played at the performance reviewed by Milly Shapiro, one of four girls alternating in the role) is the unwanted second child of rabidly anti-intellectual parents Mr. & Mrs. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert, Lesli Margherita). An outsider in her crass home environment, she devours books, from Dickens to Dostoyevsky – in the original Russian.

The importance of Matilda’s telekinesis is scaled back here, making her initially more reliant on her natural smarts and instinctual sense of justice. But one of Kelly’s most enchanting embellishments is to have the child’s special gifts manifested through her fantasist’s bent. During long afternoons of reprieve from her scornful parents and doltish older brother (Taylor Trensch), she relates installments of a fanciful story to rapt librarian Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge). And while Matilda believes it to be the fruit of her imagination, the story provides the key to unlock one of the darker mysteries of her real-life existence.

Her chief ally in that world is Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), a timid but kind teacher who nurtures Matilda’s preternatural intelligence. Unfortunately, Miss Honey is a minority in an institution run with tyrannical zeal by Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel). The school motto, “Bambinatum est maggitum” (children are maggots), says it all.

A transplant from the London production, Carvel has given birth to a magnificent comic creation in Agatha Trunchbull, a top-heavy former hammer-throwing champion with hair pulled back in a tight pinhead bun and a bulbous mole quivering above her upper lip. The character’s appearance alone is extraordinary, outfitted by Howell in knee socks and a dung-brown coatdress that looks like one of those severe Prada aberrations, cinched with a weight-lifter’s belt. Watching her hiss venom as she towers over petrified tykes is both uproarious and horrifying. But what makes Carvel’s cross-dressing turn so inspired is not the diabolical fury; it’s the hushed disdain, the indignant, spiteful outrage, the petulant peevishness and girlish huffs. “The Trunchbull,” as the kids call her, is an infantile gargoyle.

Carvel gets a couple of choice numbers. In “The Hammer,” the headmistress’ ribbon twirling skills peg her as an overgrown showoff jock, and in the sublimely mordant “Smell of Rebellion,” her advocacy of strict discipline is illustrated in a grueling physical education class replete with vault tumbles.

Miss Trunchball is an essential ingredient in Dahl’s brew of sugar and arsenic. Early in the show, kids sing of themselves as their parents’ little angels, miracles, princes and princesses, while the Doctor (John Arthur Greene) who delivers Matilda exalts in every brand new life. But later, the headmistress croons wistfully, “Imagine a world with no children; Close your eyes and just dream.” That balance between childhood innocence and the monsters waiting to crush it is vital to a show in which the threat of an unhappy ending looms continually.

Two other wonderfully larger-than-life performances come from Margherita and Ebert as Matilda’s ghastly parents. A tawdry real housewife with a peroxide-blond mane, Mrs. Wormwood shares her philosophy (looks, not books) in “Loud,” an amusing song in which she shows off her vulgar Latin ballroom dance moves with preening partner Rudolpho (Phillip Spaeth). Mr. W. is a spivvy used car salesman with a Teddy Boy pompadour. In his delightful skiffle number at the top of Act II, he proudly confesses, “All I know I learnt from telly,” his hideous mint-green plaid suit making Ebert’s rubber-legged moves even funnier.

Ward, who also played the role in London, brings touching sweetness to the bullied Miss Honey, along with crystalline vocals on “This Little Girl” and especially her moving account of her hiding place, “My House.”

It’s a testament to the skillful craftsmanship behind the show that those intimate songs are no less effective than the big ensemble numbers. That holds true in particular for Matilda’s signature tunes, the quirky “Naughty,” in which she plots subversive tactics to change the direction of her story; and “Quiet,” which tellingly underscores that while there’s girl power at work here there’s also a core of humility. With her brainiac forehead and odd intensity, the tiny Shapiro offsets her physical vulnerability with determined take-charge attitude.

All of the ensemble’s junior cast members are as talented as they are adorable, never more so than when executing choreographer Peter Darling’s body-popping calisthenics and gesture-based dance moves. Frequently folding in and out of formation with older actors as school seniors, the kids get some of the show’s most memorable numbers, among them “School Song,” in which they scramble up iron gates learning of the terrors that await them inside; or “Revolting Children,” in which they reclaim Trunchbull’s scorn as an anthem of rebellion. Minchin’s lyrics at times are a tongue-twisting mouthful for the young performers, making them not always entirely intelligible, but their exuberant naturalness amply compensates.

Only the most chronic misanthrope could fail to get misty-eyed when these mistreated kids glide back and forth on long rope swings singing “When I Grow Up.” That song’s soul-stirring mix of yearning and escape encapsulates what makes Matilda such a joy.

Venue: Shubert Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Bertie Carvel, Gabriel Ebert, Lesli Margherita, Lauren Ward, Karen Aldridge, John Arthur Greene, Thayne Jasperson, Tamika Sonja Lawrence, John Sanders, Phillip Spaeth, Ryan Steele, Betsy Struxness, Samantha Sturm, Heather Tepe, Ben Thompson, Taylor Trensch, Frenie Acoba, Jack Broderick, Jared Parker, Beatrice Tulchin, Ted Wilson, Ava DeMary, Emma Howard, Judah Bellamy

Director: Matthew Warchus

Book: Dennis Kelly, based on the novel by Roald Dahl

Music and lyrics: Tim Minchin

Set and costume designer: Rob Howell

Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone

Sound designer: Simon Baker

Illusion: Paul Kieve

Choreographer: Peter Darling

Music director: David Holcenberg

Orchestrations & additional music: Chris Nightingale

Executive producers: Denise Wood, Andre Ptaszynski

Presented by The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Dodgers