‘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

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
harnesses both to its maximum advantage, and the end result is
wonderfully transporting.

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Nora Ephron’s 'Lucky Guy' Starring Tom Hanks Opens on Broadway: REVIEW
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


  1. says

    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.

  2. says

    “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*

  3. Sean says

    Lovely review. May I point out, though, that it’s “in” London’s West End and not “on”?

  4. Caliban says

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

  5. dws says

    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.

  6. says

    @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.

  7. dws says

    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.

  8. says

    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.

  9. Rob says

    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.

  10. Dan says

    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.

  11. MickleSt. says

    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.

  12. MickleSt. says

    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.

  13. says

    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.”