Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Broadway Theatre Review: Matilda the Musical

Matilda Sam S. Shubert Theatre

“Miracle.” Photo by Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP.

The Roald Dahl classic becomes a classic musical

If you want to see something wrong, you will. Matilda the Musical opened only on Thursday, yet some backlash to its musical magic is already bubbling beneath the surface, threatening to spill over: Tim Minchin packs so much into his lyrics that Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “lean in” must be taken literally here, otherwise you won’t understand a damned word those mischievous munchkins — with their thick English accents, no less — are saying. This show, about a girl, is for girls only! (True story.) It could simply be “too British” for American audiences. The title character — and every character, really, except for the too-sweet teacher — is unlikable. It lacks warmth, and is cold to the touch. Those last two points are particularly irksome: Where is this musical theatre rule book that insists all musicals be jolly and feel-good and likable? And who says Matilda isn’t all those things, if not all the time?

When we were making it, we became aware that there were lots of rules for writing musicals and that we should probably listen to them. But we just thought, “No, we’re not going to.” — Dennis Kelly

Leave it to the Brits (and one whacky Australian) — a less insistently warm bunch —  to disregard such “rules” if there are any, and to break free of their massive musical theatre losing streak. (Does anyone remember Beautiful & Damned? Because I sure do. Jesus.)  Bookwriter Dennis Kelly remains faithful to Roald Dahl’s last book (1988), and by all accounts, Dahl was an exceedingly unpleasant man (one might even go so far as to call him a “hateful little fuck”) who happened to write exceedingly enjoyable, dark, adult-like children’s books. I read and adored them; you probably did, too. Matilda was my favorite.

The stories are brilliant and the imagination is fabulous. Unfortunately, there is, in all of them, an underlying streak of cruelty and macabre unpleasantness, and a curiously adolescent emphasis on sex. — Noël Coward

Matilda Wormwood is precocious little girl. Unwanted and  belittled by her dimwitted parents — her father insists on calling her a boy and harps on her “stupidity” for preferring reading to watching the telly — and her hostile headmistress, she immerses herself in her books. Reclusive, but with a vivid and ever-growing imagination and sharp mind, Matilda dreams of a better life for herself, daring to take a stand against these oppressive forces and to grasp her destiny in her own, tiny hands.

How can any little girl or boy not love/relate to/root for her?

Matilda Sam S. Shubert Theatre

“When I Grow Up.” Photo by Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP.

But it’s not just the story that draws you in. Rob Howell’s scrabble-tile explosion of a set, playfully and colorfully lit by Hugh Vanstone, is what one imagines is the visual equivalent of Dahl’s uncontained creative genius spewing forth onto the stage of the Shubert Theatre. From there, it only gets more devilish. Directed with an almost ADD-like enthusiasm by Mathew Warchus — the show’s creative team is nearly a carbon copy of Ghost: The Musical‘s, but don’t hold that against it (their scenic and lighting designs could elevate any material) — Matilda opens with a winking take on the über-doting, overly-proud parents whose kids aggressively gush, “My mummy says I’m a miracle / One look at my face, and it’s plain to see /Ever since the day doc chopped the umbilical cord /It’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me!” Minchin’s lyrics expand and contract, with wordy witticisms piled high, one on top of another. The comedian-musician doesn’t pull any punches, and the jaunty, catchiness of the music is matched only by Peter Darling’s spiky, staccato movement. If a child’s temper-tantrum was choreographed, this is what it would look like, all stomping feet and sharply-swinging arms. (Some will claim it’s a riff on Bill T. Jones’s Spring Awakening, but it’s closer to the thrusting frustration of Steven Hoggett’s American Idiot.)

Warchus transforms the stage — and much of the auditorium — into a playground of which an amazing group of kid-actors reigns. In one deliciously savage moment that is entirely loyal to Dahl, the Trunchbull, who ferociously detests pigtails on little girls, grabs hold of an offending pair. Taking the girl to the air, she swings her ’round and ’round by the hair, while the girl’s classmates rush into the auditorium, frantically trying to predict where the poor thing will land. Sure enough, the dirty little worm falls from the rafters (directly in front of my seat, no less) to the delighted gasps of the audience. Warchus gets the sadistic essence of Dahl, and Dahl would certainly, gleefully, be on board.

Bertie Carvell as Miss Trunchbull.

Bertie Carvell as Miss Trunchbull. Photo by Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP.

But above all, Dahl would most revel in this Matilda‘s version of Miss Trunchbull. Played by Bertie Carvel in the English pantomime style (Carvel’s a man, by the way), the horrid headmistress is a towering, linebacker of a woman, with a grey bun wrapped so tightly atop her head as to pinch her face, and shoulders so broad, she could be nothing other than an Olympic hammer thrower. Dressed ingeniously (costumes also by Rob Howell) in a brown military jacket and knee-high socks, the Trunchbull boasts gigantic boobs that sag to her cinched waist. One would imagine such an imposing figure to lurch heavily about the stage, but no: Carvel performs her as though on twinkle toes (he even marvelously and delicately plays the ribbons), floating threateningly from child to child. When angered, which is all the time, her right hand raises to her chest, folded at the wrist, like the truncated arm of a T-Rex, quivering. Carvel’s physicality is perfection, and his voice, not exactly high-pitched, but womanly, betrays the insecurity behind the sadistic narcissism. The virtuosic performance has already won the actor (who’s played Leo Frank, also brilliantly, in Parade) an Olivier; it’s sure to garner him a Tony as well.

And let us not forget our diminutive heroine. Four little girls play the title character, rotating performances, but if you were at the same one as me, you had the pleasure of seeing two of the young charmers. The brunette Bailey Ryon began the show, with wide eyes and lots of pint-sized spunk, declaring that Jack & Jill never stood a chance and Romeo & Juliet were just a touch stupid, so why didn’t they just change their story? (It’s hard not to agree.) “Sometimes,” she matter-of-factly states, “you have to be a little bit naughty.” Perhaps it was her full commitment to that naughtiness, but during a quick-change, mid-act II, Ryon fell and suffered a slight injury, prompting the stoic and sweet-voiced Milly Shapiro to finish the show with her old-soul-worldliness and gravity. (Ryon was ultimately fine, and joined Shapiro for the curtain call.) The immersive role demands much of these young women, and by all accounts, all four seem more than capable of carrying the show on their small, but sturdy shoulders.

Four Matildas. From l. to r.: Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa, and Oona Laurence. Photo by Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP.

Four Matildas. From l. to r.: Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa, and Oona Laurence. Photo by Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP.

I could go on and on about the multitude of fantastic performances (Gabriel Ebert’s vaudevillian elasticity as Mr. Wormwood, for example, is put to especially fine and hilarious use in the second-act opener, an homage to the wide-ranging benefits of “The Telly”), the alternating witty and touching songs (“When I Grow Up” is a sad-sweet gem), the inventive staging (the building-block blocking of “School Song”) and invigorating movement. But if you, like me, were the quiet but bright child who kept to herself, holed up in her room with a pile of books she voraciously tore through, you will see yourself, uncannily and fondly, in Matilda. You’ll root for her, that telekinetic miniature Carrie, as she struggles to find the strength to stand up to the bullies and overcome the obstacles. And you’ll delight in rediscovering the magic of a musical theatre that is vibrant and imaginative and fresh, and that is equally pleasurable for the eye, the ear and the heart. Take a child if you can, but at the very least, take yourself. You will not have a better time on Broadway this season than at Matilda the Musical.

Matilda the Musical
Sam S. Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Open-ended

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