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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Shubert


  Ph: Joan Marcus

Once upon a time, in a strange and often disturbing place called Broadway, there were no real children. Any children who happened to stumble into that odd place immediately turned into Tiny Tim (sickly sweet, lisping urchins), Baby June (brass-lunged teensy triple threats), or restless, unruly audience members (most of them). Things got so bad that sometimes Broadway had to bring in grownups to pretend to be children, which was generally even more grotesque than it sounds. Then, at last, appeared Matilda the Musical, based on the book by Roald Dahl, with a clever book written by Dennis Kelly and equally clever music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. And kids could appear as their true selves at last – and actually entertain both other kids and adults.
Dahl’s beloved book, which also spawned the 1995 Danny DeVito movie of the same name, is a call to arms for smart kids and bookworms everywhere, and the musical embraces this mission wholeheartedly and makes it its own. A set framed by giant Scrabble tiles and composed largely of moving bookshelves sets the tone as we meet Matilda (played by Oona Luarence at the performance I attended, though the role revolves among four young actresses.) She’s a little girl who loves to learn, think, read and tell stories. Even math is a breeze for her. Unfortunately, she’s been born into a family of Philistines. Her father, Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert, who seems to be made of rubber) is an unscrupulous used car salesman who worships his TV; Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita) is a bleached blonde addicted to competitive dance and her limber partner Rodolpho (Philip Spaeth); and Matilda’s apathetic brother Michael (Taylor Trensch) is pretty much what you’d expect from such a union. But if life – and particularly Matilda’s life in this unloving, unappreciative family – isn’t fair, she’s not above evening the odds (as she relates in the delightful anthem “Naughty”). And she’s able to escape her exasperating home life in her solo trips to the library where she holds the librarian (Karen Aldrich) enthralled by a complex serial melodrama.
Then comes the fateful day Matilda has to go to school. Although she’s happy to have the warm, sympathetic Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) as her teacher, the school is run by the terrifying, sadistic, ex-hammer-throwing champion Miss Trunchbull (brilliantly played by Bertie Carvel), a broad-shouldered, top-heavy nightmare who storms around in a belted skirt suit and cleats. Together with her classmates, most notably Lavender (Frenie Acora the night I was there) and the stolid Bruce (Jack Broderick, ditto), Matilda uses her astonishing intellect to try to make life fairer – and discovers some very unexpected powers.
The musical adds in a few embellishments to tie the plot more closely together, but its heart and soul seem remarkably true to the original. Life’s not fair – and that’s a hard lesson for children to learn. That’s why the bullies and miscarriages of justice in Dahl’s work feel so unmotivated and sadistic – because that’s the way a child experiences them. And the villains in Matilda are unexpectedly evocative, even for adults (who are, after all, ex-children). Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull is truly terrifying as she thunders down the aisle. Her clipped, precise delivery makes her sudden acts of physical violence all the more ghastly, and her insane vision of a world without children drives home how frightening it is to be entirely at the mercy of someone you are pretty sure is flat-out crazy. But Matilda’s TV-loving parents are more nuanced villains, and Ebert’s casual cruelties – destroying one of Matilda’s library books, for instance – is offset by moments of sheer silliness, like his cheery homage to the boob tube, “Telly,” reflecting Matilda’s more mixed attitude toward him.
But perhaps the most powerful statement about the children in this show comes through in the performances of the children. They’re given songs that aren’t squeaky, choreography that feels kid-like and not creepily precocious, and lines that – even for the extraordinarily gifted Matilda – sound like they’re coming from real children. Director Matthew Warchus gets uniformly stellar, spontaneous, un-self-conscious performances from them, even when they’re rioting in school (“Revolting Children”). Perhaps the greatest tribute to their collective success: The kids in the audience are so spellbound, if you’re not a parent, you hardly know they’re there.
So is this a show for kids? Not necessarily. Sure, likely they’ll love it, and among the younger set,Matilda seems to be as de rigeur today as those other Dahl classics Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach were when I was a kid, and as beloved. But really, this is the perfect show for anyone who’s had to face up to the fact that life isn’t fair – and would kind of like to fight back.


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