Matilda the Musical, based on Roald Dahl’s novel, is about a brainy little girl abused by her dullard parents and sadistic headmaster, which doesn’t sound like a fantastic family musical, unless you’re familiar with Dahl’s sly mix of humor and horror.
Matilda, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring musical, has arrived at the Civic Theatre to frighten and enlighten.
Lurking under the exaggerated comedy and dancing are lessons about courage and justice. Edgy and wonderfully smart, Matilda redefines the family musical.
Most striking is how vividly author Dennis Kelly and composer-lyricist-comedian Tim Minchin translate Dahl’s dark and quirky tale for the stage. Every character is outlandish and irreverent, which appeals to children of all ages, especially girls who don’t like pink or chick flicks.
Little Matilda with unbrushed hair becomes an unexpected superhero who confronts bullies and stupidity, and she’s only five. “Even if yer little, you can do a lot,” she sings, “…and sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.”
Instead of a cape, she wears a brown book bag. All she wants to do is read books from Dostoevsky, in the original Russian, to Cat in the Hat. A gifted Jenna Weir nailed the role on opening night and alternates with other child actors.
Her illiterate parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, scold her for reading and wish she’d watch the “telly” instead. They’re impressed by their lazy TV-addicted slug of a son, so Matilda finds comfort in books and telling stories.
Good ‘ol dad is a real tosser, a swindler used car salesman dressed in blinding green plaid, played by Matt Harrington (who started in Pt. Loma, then went on to Broadway, and commercials). He continually berates his sweet girl and calls her a boy, which makes her super-powered blood boil.
One of the funniest scenes involves Darcy Stewart as Mrs. Wormwood and Stephen Diaz as Rudolpho, her spicy dance partner. They are cartoonish characters, and Peter Darling’s superb choreography sends them into competitive dance forms and splits that are cringe worthy. (Darling also choreographed Billy Elliot about a boy who trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes).
Matilda the Musical won four Tony Awards in 2014, and it’s very British. Bloody hell, we wish the sound could be crisper and less amplified because there are wicked zingers sprinkled throughout the production that few could discern on opening night. Matilda, please use your superpowers to fix the maddening sound system.
When the U.K. hit crossed the pond from London to Broadway, there was talk about swapping out the oppressive, military school for an Americanized setting. God save the queen, they saved the oppressive Crunchhem Hall run by the evil Miss Trunchbull, the torture loving headmaster.
Played in frightening drag by Dan Chameroy, costuming suggests a bulbous prison warden. Her uniform looks like an overstuffed backpack cinched at the waist with a leather strap, and she’s a nightmare.
Trunchbull forces a boy to eat an entire chocolate cake and threatens to send him to the seventh circle of hell. In the song “The Hammer,” she relives her days as a hammer thrower and grills students about following rules.
While the score is word dense, Trunchbull rattles off naughty rhymes with speed, as in “The Smell of Rebellion.” When she threatens to send kids to the “chokey,” a room full of sharp objects, Matilda has to save the day.
Cruelty is so absurd that it’s palatable, and it’s balanced with some kindness. Matilda joins forces with the librarian (Keisha T Fraser) and her teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles) who is annoyingly sweet and tentative compared to the rest of the buggers.
The show opens with a birthday party for “miracle” children, which makes fun of helicopter parents raising “alpha’ children. Horns from the excellent orchestra sound like deflating balloons. From there, every scene screams and plays out with childlike imagination.
Tiles of letters fill the stage, as if a giant tossed his Scrabble game. A shadow-puppet projection brings unexpected magic to the stage. Acrobatic children flip off trampolines and dance atop desks. There’s a giant belch.
Nearing the two-plus hour mark, some viewers may want to scream. A song begins at intermission, perhaps to shave off a few minutes. Still, Matilda is brilliant and sets new expectations for inspired family musicals.
Matilda the Musical runs through Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017. http://www.broadwaysd.com/