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‘Matilda the Musical’ at Shubert Theater, Reviewed


















Roald Dahl, like Maurice Sendak, made a career of writing popular yet frequently disturbing children’s books. These are stories filled not with fluff and lightness, but dark, menacing threats to children. His book Matilda was the last he wrote before he died, and continued the themes of his previous children’s books: adults (with noted exceptions) are the enemy, injustice is rampant in the lives of young children, life is terrifying, incomprehensible, and randomly cruel, but in the end those who are good triumph, while the bad are befittingly punished. The book was adapted into a movie in 1996 (with Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as Matilda’s terrible parents) that didn’t do well at the box office, but subsequently became popular with a generation of kids.

“Matilda the Musical” follows the book much more closely than the movie did, and is much more British than the Americanized film version, understandable as the show originated in London. The set by Rob Howell is composed of gigantic Scrabble tiles, letters that appear random but come together to form words, including an illuminated “MAtiLda.” For words are the savior of Matilda Wormwood (played in rotation by four girls; on this night by Ripley Sobo, tiny and solemn-faced with great energy), a five-year-old genius who later exhibits extraordinary powers, who looks to words as escape from her horrible life. Unlike the happy children who inhabit the world of the rousing opening number “Miracle,” whose parents dote on them, Matilda’s verbally abuse and neglect her. Terrifically, cartoonishly drawn, her father (Gabriel Ebert) is a sleazy used-car salesman who can’t even remember that Matilda is a girl, not a boy, while her bleached blonde mother (Lesli Margherita) is obsessed with ballroom dancing competitions and sneers at Matilda’s talents. Her dimwitted brother (Taylor Trensch) does little but watch television. All of them are self-absorbed and contemptuous of Matilda’s incredible reading abilities and her sense of right and wrong. The munchkin refuses to take it all lying down, however, and surreptitiously extracts revenge. As she says in her solo number “Naughty”: “If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out/You don’t have to cry, you don’t have to shout/’Cause if you’re little, you can do a lot!”

Stories sustain Matilda, and the public library is her sanctuary. There she finds not just the books she loves and takes shelter in, but also the attention of the kind librarian (Karen Aldridge). She is mesmerized and delighted by Matilda and the stories she tells, and the story-within-the-story that the girl creates sets up an interesting parallel to the larger story later in the show.

But not even stories and words can shield Matilda when she enters school and finds herself and her fellow classmates ground under the thumb of the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (played in drag by Ben Thompson, one of the highlights of the show), an imposing former Olympic hammer-thrower. The Trunchbull is by turns quietly sinister and manically threatening, always eager to spring on a terrified child like a ravaging wolf. Children are “maggots” and school has little to do with education and everything to do with submission, in her view. Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey (Jill Paice), however, is a kind and gentle soul who tries to mentor the child after discovering how brilliant and advanced she is. However, Miss Honey is too desperately cowed by her own childhood trauma and continued terrorization by Miss Trunchbull to help, as shown in the number “Pathetic.” She tries to appeal to Matilda’s mother, who condescendingly tells her that girls shouldn’t be clever and that “Looks are better than books,” before belting out the merits of being “Loud.” The first act ends with more of Miss Trunchbull’s cruelty, in a number called “Bruce,” after her latest target. Bruce (Jack Broderick; all the kids in the cast were wonderful, but this boy was truly a standout) is forced to eat a huge chocolate cake and then is dragged off to the punishment closet known as “Chokey.”

The second act opens with a sweet, wistful number as the schoolchildren (played by both the actual children and some of the adult cast) swing on the playground and imagine how things will be better “When I Grow Up.” In reality, conditions at school grow worse as Miss Trunchbull continues her sadistic rampage, in “The Smell of Rebellion.” At the most dire moment, Matilda summons previously unknown powers and stops time, beseechingly wishing for “Quiet.” Her miraculous mind exhibits telekinetic abilities and she saves the day, if only temporarily. Miss Honey is stunned by Matilda’s demonstration and the two go to Miss Honey’s extremely modest house (“My House”). There it’s revealed that the dramatic and tragic fictional story that Matilda has been telling to her librarian friend was actually the true story of Miss Honey’s life, with Miss Trunchbull as the villian. Fueled by this discovery, Matilda is even more determined that Miss Trunchbull is stopped. Back at school, the other children stand up in “Revolting Children,” but Miss Trunchbull appears about to thwart them yet again. Matilda uses her supernatural powers in an even more extraordinary fashion and drives Miss Trunchbull off once and for all. In the final scene, Matilda’s father’s shenanigans have landed him in trouble with the Russian mafia. Matilda’s cleverness saves him, but the family must leave town. Miss Honey offers to keep Matilda with her, in the lovely house that has been recovered from Miss Trunchbull, and the two cartwheel happily into their future together.

This has been a highly lauded production, and is deserving of much of the praise. The book by Dennis Kelly recaptures many elements of Dahl’s book that were missing from the movie, while making changes necessary to the visual aspects of a stage show. Tim Minchin’s (he was so great and over-the-top recently as Atticus Fitch on the television series Californication) music and lyrics are by turns wonderfully frenetic and beautifully tender, always cleverly conceived. The choreography by Peter Darling makes great use of the energy of the children, who move through many of the numbers with drill team precision. The entire cast rolls across the stage on scooters during the curtain call!

There were definitely problems with the production, however. As gamely as the kids try, they are young children and the incredibly fast-paced, at times intricate lyrics (sung with fake British accents) proved too great a challenge. At many points I had no idea what they were singing. Little kids generally lack the lung capacity of adults, so running around the stage, performing precision dance moves, and singing so rapidly left Ripley Sobo out of breath by the latter part of her solo “Naughty.” The sound system in the Shubert left a lot to be desired at several points as well, and there was actually a loud boom of distortion during Jill Paice’s quiet solo “My House.”

In all, though, it was a wonderfully entertaining show with great spirit. It is about empowerment, resilience, and the true bravery of the small. One may not walk out of the theater singing the songs, but I definitely left feeling the triumph of brains over brawn.

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