|It's not a dream; Matilda really is as good as you've heard.|
The producers of the American premiere of the Olivier-winning smash hit Matilda have done themselves a great disservice by allowing the musical to be marketed as a children’s show. True, there is nothing anyone but the most overprotective parents would find in the least bit offensive, but there is more wit, intelligence, and invention in this adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel than in any other Broadway musical of the season. This is a show of supreme sophistication which dares to actually challenge its young audience rather than speak down to them, and offers as many if not more pleasures for the adults lucky enough to find themselves in the audience.
Like the book on which it’s based, the musical follows the misadventures of precocious 5-year-old Matilda as she begins her first year of school. Unwanted by her vapid and emotionally abusive parents – her father refuses to even acknowledge her gender, repeatedly referring to her as “boy” – Matilda has taken solace in reading and study. Her incredible intelligence immediately catches the attention of her meek but kind-hearted teacher, Miss Honey, who quietly vows to do everything she can to help Matilda reach her extraordinary potential. Unfortunately the headmistress of Matilda’s school is the villainous Miss Trunchbull, whose motto “Bambinatum est Maggitum" (“Children Are Maggots”) tells you everything you need to know about why her presence is a problem.
The libretto by Dennis Kelly is a bravura piece of theatrical writing, establishing the show’s off-kilter tone with such assuredness that you buy into it immediately. Simultaneously oversized and understated, the characters inhabit a realm of magical realism that is utterly fascinating without losing the feeling of familiarity. Kelly has gifted his hyper-literate lead and her cohorts with some of the sharpest dialogue to grace the musical stage in years, and Matilda’s unending amount of wordplay and dry humor is positively delicious. Kelly has also created a framing device in which Matilda tells the local librarian serialized fragments of a seemingly inconsequential story that slowly illuminate the quirky intelligence of his heroine and her feelings about the series of mishaps she finds herself in. And on top of everything else, Kelly also manages to work in some rather biting satire of modern-day parenting without distracting from the main narrative, giving the show an added layer of social commentary on top of its already full plate.
The songs by Tim Minchin are equally inventive. In fact, one of the few knocks against the show is that between the lightning-fast tempos and the sometimes shrill registers of the children’s ensemble, it is almost impossible to fully comprehend Minchin’s incredibly playful lyrics. It’s never enough of a problem that it obscures the story, but the lyrics you do catch are so damned clever you can’t help but feel like you’re missing out on something worth hearing. Musically, the score is light and bouncy, with a few tender ballads thrown in to keep things fresh. Minchin hasn’t written an enormous number of songs for Matilda, but what is present perfectly balances with Kelly’s dynamite libretto and the needs of the narrative.
Matthew Warchus elevates this already strong material to the next level through his ingenious direction, which keeps the show moving and visual interest high. He effortlessly conjures up feelings of dread or elation as the situation dictates, and at multiple points his staging is genuinely jaw-dropping (special praise must be given to Matilda’s arrival at her appropriately ominous school, which left me speechless). Warchus is aided and abetted by the incredible word-tile set of Rob Howell, which has exploded well beyond the confines of the Shubert Theatre stage and taken over the entire auditorium. If you somehow find yourself bored by the onstage action (an unlikely scenario, to be sure), spotting the thematically important words carefully hidden among the scenery is entertainment onto itself, and this exceptionally versatile set seamlessly transforms into whatever is required.
Matilda is such a stellar example of strong writing and direction that it’s easy to underrate the contributions of the cast, which is uniformly excellent. Four young actresses share the title role, and if they are all as effortlessly enchanting as young Oona Laurence (who played the performance I saw), we have four future stars on our hands. There is a nuance and understated complexity to her Matilda that is rarely seen in actors so young, and she effortlessly carries the show on her petite shoulders. Laurence is complimented by the insanely talented collection of child actors playing her classmates, whose abounding energy has been perfectly harnessed by Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling to create the most gleefully unique bunch of misfits on the Great White Way. The children’s numbers, of which there are many, are more cleanly executed than those in musicals with adult casts, and not because Darling has dumbed down his steps for the young performers. These kids are blissfully unaware of how difficult what they’re doing truly is, and their energy is completely infectious.
The adults are thankfully just as good. Lauren Ward gives a pitch perfect performance as the meekly maternal Miss Honey, beautifully complimenting Matilda’s yearning for love and acceptance with her own. In addition to sounding lovely, Ward brings exactly the kind of warm, calming presence the role demands. But it’s the antagonists that get to have the real fun, and all of the nasty adults in Matilda’s life make scenery chewing meals out of their delightfully daffy roles. As Matilda’s neglectful parents, Lesli Margherita and Gabriel Ebert are utterly despicable and yet endlessly entertaining. The pair has managed to add enough venom to their performances to be effective without being so harsh that their antics become tiring, and both bring excellent comic timing to their respective roles. And as Matilda’s impossibly stupid older brother, Taylor Trensch turns his monosyllabic lines into comedy gold.
Towering over everyone else in the cast is Bertie Carvel’s absolutely magnificent turn as Miss Trunchbull, the Olympic-level hammer thrower and headmistress of Matilda’s school. Carvel’s every hand gesture, facial tic, and change in inflection is completely compelling, a master class in character acting that completely disguises the performer underneath. Although Carvel’s dressed in drag, with no real effort made to disguise that fact, you instantly believe that he is Trunchbull, thanks to the combination of his unequaled commitment and magnetic stage presence. It’s difficult to say this perfectly balanced show would be better by adding more of Carvel, but every time the actor leaves the stage you eagerly anticipate his next appearance.
Although imported from London’s West End, everything about Matilda screams Broadway. It is a show where absolutely everyone involved is working at the highest possible level, from the writers and performers to the production team and the expert craftsmen responsible for the gorgeously detailed sets and costumes. While the smallest theatregoers may be too young to fully appreciate the brilliance of Matilda, it is a show that can be enjoyed by everyone from age 8 to 80 and beyond. It is one of the few British transfers that full delivers on the lofty expectations created by its pre-opening buzz, and is not to be missed.