BY NAVEEN KUMAR
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.
An 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.
Matilda’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.
As 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)