Matilda's Mind Magic is Big on Broadway
By Lauren Yarger
The hype is big, with phrases like “The best musical to hit Broadway since….” “The hottest thing since Book of Mormon” and “A shoe-in for the Best Musical Tony” being used to describe the Broadway musical Matilda, based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl.
So intense was the buzz about this show during its run in London, that there was an actual bidding war among New York producers to bring the phenomenon across the Atlantic (The Dodgers won the honor of co-producing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and it has been selling out over at the Shubert Theatre where it opened April 11.
What all the hype is about, I’m not sure, however. The show is fun and entertaining in many ways, but it’s also flawed. I’d give it a B grade – hardly worthy of “The best musical to ht Broadway since….” status.
The story, with a script for the stage by Dennis Kelly (Orphans) and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (a comedian also known to TV fans as Atticus Fetch on “Californication), is rather dark. Matilda Wormwood (the role is shared by Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro, whom I saw the night I attended) is a little genius of a girl who takes comfort in the world of books and storytelling to escape her life. Her mother (Lesli Margherita) isn’t happy to find out she’s pregnant with Matilda because it interferes with salsa dancing competition and long-haired dance partner Rudolpho (a funny Philip Speath). And besides, she already has a son, Michael (Taylor Trensch) who spends his time in a coma-like pose in front of the TV.
Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert) doesn’t know how to relate to a child who isn’t male, so he refers to Matilda as a boy, prompting her to yell repeatedly, “I’m a girl!” Soon she realizes that she’s by far the brightest bulb in this family package and starts to use her intelligence to manipulate circumstances. She hides the reality of her sad home life from friend and librarian Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge), who waits eagerly for Matilda to tell the next installment of her fairytale about an :escapologist (Ben Thompson) and his acrobat wife (Samantha Sturm) who long for a daughter to make their life complete (the story comes to life a number of times thanks to the creative design teams effects: Hugh Vanstone, lighting; Rob Howell, sets and costumes; Simon Baker sound).
The only other positive influence in Matilda’s life is her teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) who recognizes her astonishing gifts and ties to help the child. Working against her, however, is the cruel, sadistic headmistress of Crunchem Hall, Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel). She’s freaky and scary with her hair wrapped into a tight bun to accent her "uptight" qualities. She sports a humorous get-up: a little mini-skirted, top-heavy thing with room to accommodate a hunched back as she totters about in an overly effeminate way.
She s she watches the little “maggots” in her charge on multiple video cameras and tries to trap them into admitting wrong doings so she can place them in the chokey, a cupboard-like solitary confinement.
“To teach the child, we must first break the child,” she gleefully cackles.
Her bullying proves no match for Matilda’s intelligence, however, and when the girl discovers she has the ability to use her extraordinary mind to move objects, she uses her power to unite her classmates and defeat the evil “Trunch.”
The effect where she uses her mind to manipulate chalk to write a threatening message on the school blackboard is particularly well done (Paul Kieve, illusion). Suddenly this effect let me understand what had been causing the hype about this show. Matilda obviously has been using her mind to control the pens of theater critics and get them to write that it's the most sensational show ever to hit Broadway.....
Well, she met her match here. There's bad along with the good to report.
- The music by Minchin, with musical direction by David Holcenberg and orchestrations and additional music by Chris Nightingale, is pleasant sounding.
- The vocals.
- The sets are colossal and appealing.
- Performances by Aldridge and Spaeth shine.
Not so good:
- It's way too long at 2:45. A good chunk of oen of the weakest Act 2 openings ever could be cut to begin with one of the shows most pleasing numbers, "When I Grow Up," set on swings by choreographer Peter Darling.
- Shapiro. Sorry, hate to pick on a little kid, but I couldn't understand most of what she was saying, even though she SHOUTED EVERY LINE. I was back in the house, but critics in the sixth row center were reporting that they couldn't understand her either.
- Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. Casting males in female roles for no reason is a pet peeve to begin with, but in this case, it really doesn't work. Carvel's performance isn't bad. He provides some nice chops for the humor, but he isn't at all convincing as a woman. If you don't know the story from Dahl's book or the movie starring Mara Wilson as Matilda, you will think Trunchbull is a really creepy transvestite and you will be wondering how he ever got away with competing as a hammer thrower in the Olympics given all of the testing they do..... It changes the focus of the character and isn't necessary -- especially in a show geared for kids. There are plenty of gifted -- even large and towering in height -- women who could create the complex character. Hire one of them, Director Matthew Warchus.
Matilda plays at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th St., NYC. Tickets and info: http://www.matildathemusical.com/.
Christians might also like to know:
--Lord's name taken in vain
-- I wouldn't recommend this for very young children.