Matilda, both the musical that opens tonight, and its source material—the beloved 1988 Roald Dahl children’s novel—challenges the typical mythology of childhood, where angelic preschoolers grow up idyllic and innocent. For Matilda Wormwood (played by four rotating young actors, with Oona Laurence playing the role for the performance this review is based on), these carefree years feature daily cruelty administered by uncaring parents and a society that largely ignores their negligence.
Both the book by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s songs expands Dahl’s work, appropriating his sinister sense that the monsters-under-the-bed visit often, coupling it with a whimsy and tenderness that makes the characters and their plights irresistible. Even the bad guys become surprisingly palatable, and (somewhat) endearing here. Matilda’s father, for instance, (Taylor Trensch) comes across with a Vaudevillian playfulness, with his checkered suit and a bouncy agility that makes him gamble rather than move across the stage, even as he taunts his five-year-old, calling her a “lousy little worm” who should “watch more TV.”
Like the book and the 1996 film, starring Danny De Vito, Rhea Perlman and Mara Wilson, this version of Matilda tells the story of how a little girl, with the help of special powers (telekinesis) overcomes her plight with imagination and a dash of derring-do. The musical, first performed in Stratford-upon-Avon in late 2010 (produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company), later opened on the West End to awards and great acclaim in 2011. Director Matthew Warchus and Set Designer Rob Howell (who also does the costumes) also channel Dahl’s tone, with playful staging that uses alphabet letter blocks as a main decoration: they precariously stack unevenly on stage, act as a wallpaper, and hang from the rafters and the proscenium at times like Spanish moss.
The show often plays with the ironic, and opens with a song that embraces the overhyped attitude toward childhood where pampered youngsters celebrate themselves with a birthday party, singing, “My mommy says I’m a miracle” while embodying every dress-up desire of the pre-school set: Super Girl, a soldier, a king, Spiderman, and others. Their parents dance joyously alongside them. Matilda, in comparison, arrives unwanted, interrupting her self-involved mother’s (Lesli Margherita) ballroom dancing career.
The loneliness that permeates Matilda gives the show its warmth. A slight figure on stage, Laurence emits vulnerability even as she sings of how a little bit of naughtiness goes a long way as she sabotages her father’s hair tonic, knowing that his motto of “good hair means a good brain” will be lost with lackluster locks. Despite, her pluckiness she covets connections and looks for them in the library. Bolstered by her love of books—a trait her parents find appalling—and her love of stories, Matilda uses her imagination to escape her surroundings. Magic happens as she creates a circus tale about a father and a daughter who waits for “the biggest hug in the world,” that will in reality, ultimately, involve her favorite teacher who also is a victim of bullying.
Like two other children-friendly shows on Broadway this season (Annie, which opened in the fall and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella that began in January), Matilda battles against a main adult nemesis (Annie grapples with Miss Hannigan and Cinderella with her step-mother) that comes in the form of the spirit-crushing, child-hating, former hammer-throwing Olympian, Miss Trunchbull (an uncannily good Bertie Carvel) who is part school mistress, part S.S. officer. The ruler of the aptly named Crunchem Hall uses Physical Education as a punishment for children AKA “maggots,” and swings little girls from their pigtails at whim.
From the moment, Trunchbull and Matilda engage as adversaries the show sparkles and the musical numbers become romps of entertainment even in Matilda’s darkest hours. The laughter makes the show tons of fun, but its Matilda and her heart-breaking, jaded and wise understanding of the world and all its failings that tickles your heart.
(Purchased tickets, balcony)