Matilda may boast of revolting children, but this musical is anything but revolting. Based on Roald Dahl’s best-selling children’s book and imported from London, where it originated with the Royal Shakespeare Company, this new Broadway musical is, much like its titular heroine, a fantastic balance of sarcastic and sweet, both entertaining and thought-provoking, and, as a result, endlessly appealing.
A young girl who happens to be a genius, born to two of the daftest parents in London, Matilda finds her escape in books from the local library. Already pouring over Dickens at age five, Matilda is wise beyond her years in academics but still a naive little girl at heart; she lies to the librarian Mrs. Phelps (an endearing Karen Aldridge) about how much her parents love her and dote on her when the truth could not be more different. Matilda’s mother (appealingly played by Lesli Margherita) is a superficial amateur ballroom dancer who abides by the philosophy “looks, not books.” Her father (Gabriel Ebert) is a used car salesman in every sense of the word, whose company “Wormwood Moturs” (no, that is not a typo) specializes in unethical deals with foreign men. Her older brother (Taylor Trensch) seems to be following in his parents’ television-obsessed footsteps; Matilda’s mother and father, who call her “boy” rather than her name, seem personally insulted that their daughter would rather read than watch television with them, going as far as ripping pages out of her library books just to spite her.
Rather than despair, Matilda realizes “sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty,” and begins exacting revenge on her parents in small ways. When she begins school at Crunchem Hall, where the headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel, in a revelation of a performance) reigns, her powers of thinking and reasoning are put to the test in order to help her kind teacher Miss Honey (Lauren Ward). What ensues is a delightful portrayal of both youthful excitement and exuberance and a bittersweet message of what growing up really means for children.
With a book by Dennis Kelly and songs by Tim Minchin, and directed by Matthew Warchus, Matilda features a score of whimsical melodies that resemble both pop-rock and classic Broadway. Some of the highlights are Matilda’s first-act solo “Naughty,” as well as riotous “Revolting Children.” “When I Grow Up” is another standout; staged with the children playing on swings at the playground, it is simultaneously hopeful and melancholy, as the children sing about what they will do and who they will be as adults, and then as adults reflect on their own hopes from when they were that age. Kelly’s book enhances both the more somber themes of the book, illustrating parents who do not appreciate their children as well as the horrific effects of bullying on both children and adults, as well as the more inspiring themes of changing one’s life – at any age.
These themes are beautifully rendered onstage, with Rob Howell’s sets invoking themes of the alphabet and imagination and the costumes, also by Howell, honoring the original illustrations in Dahl’s book. Vanstone’s lighting further enhances the moods and Peter Darling’s choreography translating the chaotic energy of children, both joyous and fearful; “School Song,” which features the children climbing up and down the fences of the school was a brilliant depiction of this.
The entire cast of Matilda is excellent, with each of the children giving energetic, whole-hearted performances as well as the primary cast members delivering standout performances. The titular role is shared between four children (Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro), and I saw Shapiro at the performance I attended. She gave a solid performance, enhancing the innocent bluntness of Matilda as well as her fierce sense of justice (many scenes ended with her shouting, “It’s not fair!” or “That’s not right!”). However, I thought her performance could have used a bit more spunk; Matilda’s rebellious nature did not shine through as much as I would have liked. Margherita is a riot as Matilda’s mother, displaying her extremely impressive dance skills as well as her excellent comedic timing. And as Mr. Wormwood, Ebert is a joy to watch; his cock-of-the-walk strut as he enters and leaves the stage is hilarious and his Act Two solo “Telly” would stop the show if it hadn’t just returned from intermission.
Lauren Ward’s golden voice and sweet nature are perfectly suited for Miss Honey, the kind-hearted teacher whose own journey parallels Matilda’s, and learns as much from her student as she teaches her. And as the Trunchbull, the horrifying dictator of a children’s school whose school motto translates to “Children are maggots,” Carvel gives one of the most delightfully surprising performances I’ve ever seen. Rather than playing the role of a woman as a gag, Carvel seamlessly inhabits the part, depicting the former hammer-throwing champion of London as a soft-spoken, clearly-enunciated, articulate woman who often appears as a petulant child. As a lover of order who fears any kind of rebellion and often resorts to cruelty to maintain what she believes as order, the Trunchbull is written as a monster but Carvel infuses the role with glimpses of fear and even perhaps humanity.
But, don’t worry, not too much humanity; otherwise the delightfully rebellious themes of Matilda would be lost upon the audience, and the magic of using books and stories to revolt through thinking would be irrelevant, and it definitely is not here. Matilda is quite the hero; even though she is often told, “It’s not normal for a girl to be thinking,” or that nobody likes “a smart mouthed little girl,” she does what she wants to do and what she thinks is right. At the age of five, Matilda thinks for herself and determines, “if you’re stuck in your story and want to get out, you don’t have to cry, you don’t have to shout.” I happily found myself stuck in the story of Matilda and did not want to get out; however, I did feel like crying and shouting when I realized the performance was over.