ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Jon Magaril
In the award-winning Brit-sical, the eponymous tyke performs minor acts of revenge against her verbally cruel father then expands her cause against injustice by rallying her fellow students against their school's tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. The touring production, which is being launched officially at the Ahmanson, features staging and performances that have been scaled down a wee bit from the West End and Broadway template but, like its protagonist, still packs a bracingly exhilarating punch.
Composer/lyricist Tim Minchin and librettist Dennis Kelly set themselves a difficult challenge. Roald Dahl, who wrote the '88 novel, has a distinctive sensibility which incorporates disparate strands of desperate straits, broad British humor, and macabre horror. For proof of how difficult this can be to translate into theatrical terms see the jarringly inconsistent London production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which disappoints despite the starry creative team of director Sam Mendes and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Under the guidance of director Matthew Warchus, Matilda the Musical is seamless, miraculously meshing its varied elements into a gloriously balanced entertainment that speaks to adults as much as children. It goes to silly, scarifying, soul-stirring extremes, yet remains steadfastly on point. Minchin's supple score teems with witty ditties, evocative ballads, and rousing anthems. Kelly's Tony-winning book captures Dahl's language while adjusting plot and providing sturdy structure.
Rob Howell's stage design, rooted in flats made of Scrabble tiles, is a major unifying help as is Peter Darling's vivid choreography, Hugh Vanstone's green-favoring lighting design and Chris Nightingale's orchestrations. As a result, the problematic auditory experience — in which the children's unnecessarily thick accents, an avalanche of words in many of Minchin's songs, and a muddy sound system combine to make lyrics often indecipherable — doesn't strike a fatal blow to a deeper comprehension.
The Broadway production included two indelible performances. Bertie Carvel's Trunchbull, which he originated in London, was a gorgon: proud, frightful, and mesmerizingly damaged. Here, Bryce Ryness doesn't try to compete, instead offering up a satisfyingly austere creation. Milly Shapiro's Matilda seemed in imminent danger of closing herself off emotionally. This created a ticking threat that's missing here, but was also missing from clips I've seen of other Broadway and West End girls.
Three young girls alternate here as Matilda. I saw nine-year-old Mia Sinclair Jenness who commanded the rapt attention of nearly two thousand audience members (many of whom were small children like her) for over two-and-a-half hours. She neither begs for our sympathy nor sweats to impress, and succeeds in getting both through an admirable directness and undimming focus.
Matilda's adult support team, empathetic teacher Miss Honey and librarian Mrs. Phelps, are played warmly by Jennifer Blood and Ora Jones. As the ballroom dancing obsessed Mrs. Wormwood, Cassie Silva is less broad than her Broadway counterpart while scoring as many laughs. Quinn Mattfield similarly brings Mr. Wormwood down a peg, but the juvenile exuberance that helped Gabriel Ebert earn a Tony Award also took a welcome edge off the father's insensitivity.
The biggest change from the original production is that the stage action no longer extends into theater aisles. This made for some fun and helped goose the climax, but also tipped the show into children's theater territory. The tour has also dropped the delicious term "Escapologist" from the story Matilda weaves throughout the show for the humdrum "Escape Artist." If making meaning easier is on the producers' minds, their aim would get better results by focusing on the chorus' diction.
Let's leave Matilda the Musical by examining its buoyant opening number. While lampooning the current parental obsession of treating their progeny as extraordinary "miracles," it introduces the exception, our grievously neglected heroine. The irony, which entails wish-fulfillment for everyone who's felt wrongfully neglected, is that the girl is a truly miraculous exception, a genius with super powers. Mrs. Wormwood's obstetrician promises that Matilda will bring "love and magic and happiness and wonder." The same thing can and should be said about the musical she leads to glory.