Sunday, May 26, 2013


Joan Marcus

This past theater season has been a real roller coaster for me, reception-wise. I saw Kinky Boots begrudgingly, and in a monumentally horrible mood, and seriously out for blood, and I ended up having a terrific time and even getting weepy despite myself. I saw Annie right after the hurricane, hoping that the show would comfort me by bringing back pleasant childhood memories of the original production...and I left  feeling as emotionally numb as I was when I went in. I had pretty low expectations for Macbeth and got a lot more out of it than I thought I would. I had no idea what to expect with Pippin and was absolutely, totally, completely gobsmacked. Same goes for The Other Place: I went with no idea about it at all, and felt like I needed to be scraped up off the floor and sent home in an emotional doggie-bag at the curtain call.

Then there's Matilda, which I fell completely prey to the hype of, and have been eagerly awaiting since I snagged good, reasonably cheap (for Broadway, anyway) tickets last fall. I should've known better than to have gotten so excited, because there's no way my expectations could have possibly been met. Which is not to say I was bitterly disappointed--I wasn't, not consistently, and certainly not bitterly. Matilda is an exceptionally good adaptation of an exceptionally good children's book. I just wish it had been a little more emotionally loaded.

Then again, I don't think that's entirely fair of me, considering the source. As a book, Matilda is, like many Roald Dahl books, strange, dark, and weirdly creative, but about as warm and fuzzy as a frozen head of lettuce. Matilda Wormwood is an exceptionally bright little girl whose tacky, stupid, dishonest parents dislike and neglect her. When Matilda shows up at school--a brutal, scary, gray place called Crunchem Hall, the motto of which is "Children are Maggots"--her meek but dedicated teacher, Jenny Honey, quickly recognizes her brilliance. Miss Honey visits the vile headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, and also Matilda's smugly dimwitted parents, whom she tries to convince of Matilda's intellectual gifts, but they are all too stupid, dishonest, and self-involved to believe Miss Honey, or to care. As the book progresses, Matilda defies her parents whenever she can, bests the evil headmistress, bonds with Miss Honey, and eventually goes to live with her, as happily ever after as anyone can ever be in a Dahl book.

Dahl is not a condescending writer, but he is also not an optimistic one. In his world, children are helpless and usually misunderstood, and they occupy the bottom rung of the cosmic pecking order. Grownups, who occupy the top rung, have power and make all the rules, but a majority of them are horrible, stupid and unpleasant. The best thing you can do as a child, Dahl implies, is to make your own world; if some reasonably pleasant, kind, intelligent grownups come along in the process to make your life more palatable in the process, that's well and good, but certainly not a given.

Technically, aesthetically, visually, the musical version of Matilda nails the landing. The show is a living, breathing Dahl book: darkly cynical, and filled to the brim with adults who are ditzy at best and seriously vile at worst, and with misunderstood, ill-treated children who are well on their way to becoming horrible adults themselves. Washed in a chilly, shadowy blue light and surrounded by an efficiently moving set of gigantic lettered books and blocks that seem somehow sinister with their sharp edges and scrawled letters, many of the characters appear to have popped right out of the book. Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull and Gabriel Ebert as Mr. Wormwood are particular standouts in this respect: both seem to have made it their duty to internalize and breathe new life into the wonderful, bizarre illustrations Quentin Blake created for the original book; Carvel's spastic, manic fingers and Ebert's jerky, kinetic legs alone deserve Tony awards. I was consistently tickled, as well, by the musical's take on Michael Wormwood, Matilda's older, stupider sibling. Michael doesn't do or say much in the book, but in the musical, he manages to establish himself, with a mere few lines, as a particularly hilarious village idiot in a sea of hilarious village idiots. Bravo, bravo, bravo.

Kudos, too, to the creative team and the cast, for pulling off what has to be one of the most difficult feats on the planet, or at least in the world of live theater: mounting a huge, beautiful, technically sophisticated, thoroughly professional show in which about half the cast is not only under the age of, say, twelve and for the most part speaking in accents that are not their own, but also performing in roles that they share with one, two, or three other kids. The lead role alone is played by four little girls, and no wonder: Matilda is on stage for a majority of the time, and she sings, dances, has telekinetic episodes, rattles off times tables and has a lengthy conversation in Russian during the course of the musical. Directing kids--so many, many, many kids--is not for the faint of heart, and the number of combinations of different casts performing over the course of the week is staggering--I can't get my mind around how complicated the rehearsal schedule must have been, let alone the task of directing so many different combinations of actors.

And directing them so well! The big, excellent cast is in constant motion, moving not only across the stage but through the auditorium in a way that never feels forced or excessive; the very beginning of act II, during which Mr. Wormwood and Michael get the audience settled back into their seats and reconnected with the action on stage was a highpoint for me. Also, and for what it's worth, the cast of Kinky Boots should totally kidnap Matilda's dialect coach. For the excellent accents, the dedication of the actors, and the ocean of children alone, Matilda deserves all the breathless accolades it's getting.

And yet....I just can't join the choir entirely, because in its transition from page to stage, Matilda wears a bit thin around the edges, sometimes in ways that might have been avoided. 

First of all, who the hell did the sound design, and why is he allowed to design any sound anywhere, for any reason? I am not a purist and thus don't have major issues with amplification in the theater as a rule, and yet the design here is just awful--a constant mix of echo and over-amplification that alternates back and forth and that makes Matilda irritatingly loud, even during some of its quietest moments. Similarly, the score on its own isn't terrible--the lyrics are often pretty clever, in fact--but someone seems to have felt the need to orchestrate and vocal-arrange the hell out of it to hide the fact that the melodies are not especially memorable. As a result, electric guitars and weirdly-pitched woodwinds worm themselves out of nowhere on enough occasions to really distract, and many of the songs feature a recurring polyphony that draws away from the lyrics and that starts to wear heavily on the ears by the second act. Even some of the prettiest, gentlest numbers--"My House," for example--sag under the weight of too much repetition and countermelody.

The book version of Matilda is not ideally paced: there are a lot of descriptive, talky scenes about Matilda's ridiculous family, and many scenes describing the growing bond between Matilda and Miss Honey. All the real action--the newt, the telekinesis, the plot to undo Miss Trunchbull, the frenzied departure of Matilda's family--is sort of backloaded near the end of the book. The musical is, thus, more briskly paced in the second act, but it suffers overall as a result of the book's pacing. The writers have tried to fill the musical out a bit, both by adding a related story that Matilda tells to a librarian over the course of the musical, and also by turning Mrs. Wormwood into an avid ballroom dancer so as to toss in a few more dance numbers. But these additions feel like the padding they are, and I found my attention wandering more than I wanted it to, especially during the scenes in the library.

Then there's the fact that, as noted above, Dahl's stories don't ever really mine the sentimental. They go for the mind and the funnybone, not for the heartstrings. And while some adaptations of his books manage to inject pathos (Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory comes to mind as a particularly warm, if still sort of weird and chilly, take on the Charlie stories), Matilda is as funny and smart and creative--and cool--as the book. Characters scheme and play tricks on each other, connect with or despise one another, bond with or choose to separate from each other, but they do it efficiently, and with no gooey nonsense. There is a hug at the end of the book version that is dutifully translated to the stage, but there's not much else in terms of emotional depth. I suppose I would have liked to have felt more of a connection with some of the characters. But then again, I guess I didn't feel so deeply connected to the characters in the book, either.

And this brings me back to my unfair expectations: I've read Matilda a number of times to my daughter, who was once as tiny as Matilda is, and who is now beginning to put away childish things in exchange for thoughts about middle school, and questions about boys and bras, and why we won't let her have a cell phone. She loved the book when she was younger, and she had a great time at the musical, as well. But she's older, and the days during which we read the book together are gone. I guess I brought my hope for some kind of nostalgia trip to the Shubert yesterday afternoon. Which is certainly not the production's problem. Really, Matilda is to be lauded for translating Dahl to the stage as accurately, as efficiently, and as weirdly as it has. The show might not have grabbed me emotionally, but then again, it's not that kind of a show, and I can't help but think that Dahl would have really hated it if it were.

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