Naveen Kumar | New York | News | Review | Theatre

'Matilda The Musical' Opens On Broadway: REVIEW



Like the extraordinary girl at its center, Matilda The Musical, a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s much-loved 1988 children’s novel, is charming, brilliant, and a little bit naughty. Already a critical and box office success on London’s West End, director Matthew Warchus’ production of the musical with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, opened on Broadway last Thursday at the Shubert Theatre.

Matilda5An exceptionally gifted little girl born to outlandishly mean and stupid parents, Matilda Wormwood isn’t an orphan like Oliver or Annie, although she’d probably be better off. Like many of Dahl’s best-known stories, Matilda pits daring young children against treacherous adults who strike a delicate balance between cartoon villainy and Gothic cruelty.

Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert and Leslie Margherita, both fantastically over the top) are undoubtedly nightmarish, yet they also endear themselves to the audience with their farcical stupidity. Far from a complacent victim of their torments, Matilda talks back to her parents and retaliates with clever pranks—though she later realizes she has more supernatural brain powers at her disposal.

But it’s her school principal Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel, making a star turn in some seriously scary drag), who is the real menace in this story. A brick house of a woman and former Olympic hammer thrower, Miss Trunchbull’s brand of villainy is spectacular, fastidious, and seemingly absolute. Yet with his finely tuned, hysterical performance, Carvel manages to bring out a vulnerability even in the worst of the show’s villains.

Matilda1Matilda’s teacher Miss Honey (a honey-voiced Lauren Ward), vows to champion her against the oppression of these cruel nemeses, though it turns out Miss Honey has a troubled past of her own that makes standing up to aggressors no easy task.

The show features a rotating cast of four girls in the role of Matilda on different nights. At the performance I attended, Bailey Ryon played the role until midway through the second act when she experienced a minor injury backstage, and Milly Shapiro stepped in after a brief announcement. Both were wonderful, and the unforeseen switcheroo was a reminder that each of the four will bring unique qualities to the role.

This being a musical about a prodigy, the language in Kelly and Minchin’s book and lyrics is smart, funny, and rapid-fire. Minchin’s catchy music runs the gambit from buoyant numbers featuring the company of talented children (nimbly choreographed by Peter Darling), to moving, intimate songs that address the story’s emotional stakes.

Matilda2As much as there is to love, the show’s second act becomes somewhat problematic. Storytelling isn’t nearly as tight, as musical numbers lead from one to the next without the clear logic of the first. Matilda’s telekinetic powers would seem an obvious aspect of the book to capitalize on for stage adaptation, yet by the time they come in over three quarters through, their appearance feels closer to a convenient plot device than an integral high point of the story.

Nevertheless, the show certainly isn’t lacking in other highlights. Resembling a fanciful collage of Scrabble tiles, Rob Howell’s imaginative set serves as a constant reminder of the potential of language and the power of storytelling. Matilda The Musical harnesses both to its maximum advantage, and the end result is wonderfully transporting.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)

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  1. prepare to have your minds blown - saw it in London.

    this musical has the most incredible lyrics of any show i've seen in ages.

    the song "Quiet" will give a lot of "us" a real kick in the heart - for anyone who grew up feeling different and frustrated, it's anthemic.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Apr 15, 2013 11:56:15 AM

  2. "When I grow up I will be tall enough to reach the branches that I need to reach to climb the trees you get to climb when you're grown up"

    *cue every adult in the audience choking back tears*

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Apr 15, 2013 12:42:54 PM

  3. Lovely review. May I point out, though, that it's "in" London's West End and not "on"?

    Posted by: Sean | Apr 15, 2013 1:16:47 PM

  4. I have Towleroad to thank for introducing me to Tim Minchin, and what has become my favorite "Christmas" song.

    Posted by: Caliban | Apr 15, 2013 1:54:53 PM

  5. A dissenting view: I saw it on Saturday night and was not as impressed. The staging and set were really magnificent, but I didn't find the lyrics particularly touching at all. I found them predictably schmaltzy. And the schmaltz really seems out of place in a show that can't seem to decide whether child abuse (because really, that's what it is, no matter how technicolor or laced with irony) is horrifying or amusing, as long as the victim has a plucky resolve and some pretty songs to sing. I liked the show overall, but to me the "feel good" ending is not earned, and comes with a lot of very dark baggage.

    Posted by: dws | Apr 15, 2013 2:15:30 PM

  6. @dws - fair enough, but that's sort of the essence of Dahl - whimsy and horror in equal measure. that's why kids respond to his work.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Apr 15, 2013 2:20:39 PM

  7. I get that. I am new to Matilda, and I'll be honest it didn't resonate with me. Based on the hugely positive audience reaction, I was in the extreme minority (though I didn't hate it at all, honest!). I just found the sympathetic touches applied to Trunchbull's character, in particular, and the parents to be creepily out of place. And I agree completely with the review about the "wtf?!" aspects of the emergence of Matilda's telekinesis pretty far into the second act.

    Posted by: dws | Apr 15, 2013 2:26:55 PM

  8. the novel is one of the most laced-in-acid children's stories out there.

    matilda's parents, in the novel, are FARRRRR worse than in the musical.

    can we at all agree that ensemble member Ryan Steele is the sexist goddamn thing to hit b'way in decades? mmmm cub-licious.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Apr 15, 2013 2:33:34 PM

  9. If that's who I think it is, then yes, absolutely.

    Posted by: dws | Apr 15, 2013 3:32:51 PM

  10. Kinky Boots is my favorite!! Great music and a great message!!

    Posted by: Josh | Apr 15, 2013 9:31:19 PM

  11. Can't wait to see this- my 16 year old gay son loved the movie as a boy- watched it over and over so we all saw it and loved it too. Danny Devito rocks it as the oafish Dad. Maybe this will bring some attention to that charming movie.

    Posted by: Rob | Apr 16, 2013 6:45:19 AM

  12. I am in the minority as well -- did not find this to be particularly engaging. The characters are all cartoon cut-outs, either super good or super evil. The only song that was vaguely memorable was "When I Grow Up." All the reviews and news coverage seem to find it "nuanced and sophisticated" but I thought it was about as nuanced and sophisticated as an SNL skit.

    Posted by: Dan | Apr 16, 2013 10:29:27 AM

  13. We wanted to like this more (saw it last night) and we probably would have... IF we could have understood more of what Matilda was saying and singing. If we had been sitting closer maybe it would have been easier, but a lot of those around us in the balcony appeared to be having the same problem. Some of the songs were spot on and Carvel is stupendous, though.

    Posted by: MickleSt. | Apr 18, 2013 2:11:48 PM

  14. We wanted to like this more (saw it last night) and we probably would have... IF we could have understood more of what Matilda was saying and singing. If we had been sitting closer maybe it would have been easier, but a lot of those around us in the balcony appeared to be having the same problem. Some of the songs were spot on and Carvel is stupendous, though.

    Posted by: MickleSt. | Apr 18, 2013 2:11:48 PM

  15. I'm glad to hear the musical has been done well, but our family - especially my young (at the time) daughter - thoroughly enjoyed Danny DeVito's 1996 film version - in fact, it was, along with The Wizard of Oz, one of her two favorite movies! Hardly "forgettable."

    Posted by: Pocket Knife Planet | Apr 29, 2013 6:31:28 PM

  16. Matilda the Musical is a wonderful Broadway show with awesome music and lyrics! My kids are going to love the show so I have booked Matilda the Musical tickets from

    Posted by: Paul Schlacter | May 8, 2013 4:50:01 AM

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