You may well have heard that Matilda, the musical based on Roald Dahl’s popular novel, is now on Broadway, following a smashing first year run in London, where it continues to sell out nightly. The advance hype has been tremendous, and I understand it pulled in about $10,000,000 in advance sale even before its first preview at the Shubert Theatre in New York. Something about the show appears in the gossip columns almost daily, so it well may duplicate its London success on our great white way.
Reviewing it is complicated, for there is so much up there to admire. Matthew Warchus’ staging and Peter Darling’s choreography is spot on, and it seems never to stop moving.
The opening number, “Miracle” is staged within an inch of its life, dazzlingly so, with a dozen little kids (average age around 7) moving spastically while shrieking that “My Mummy says I’m a miracle” over and over. It’s very effective, but would be more so if any of the lyrics could be understood, other than those few I just referred to. And therein lies the rub.
The entire evening depends on razzmatazz. It’s all performed in high style by an exuberant and gifted company of actors. They’ve been given proper British accents, for the school that is the show’s setting is in a little village in England, run by the formidable and frightening Headmistress Miss Trunchbull.
There, at the age of five, Matilda Wormwood is dumped by her dreadful non-caring parents, a mother who is more interested in dance contests than motherhood, a dad who’s determined to make a bundle by hoodwinking a group of Russians into buying a slew of old cars from him, cars wherein the odomoters have been rigged to make them appear to be new. Matilda is precociously bright, and more than that, she can move objects by simply staring at them, she can read and write at five, and she is light years ahead of her classmates in every subject.
So, of course, she is constantly rubbing up against Miss Trunchbull, who seems to delight in torturing the children in her charge, particularly bright little girls. She explains, in “The Hammer” she got to be champion hammer thrower in a contest that required her to have the power of a bull, the stamina of a perfect storm, and she expects her girls to shape up to those standards.
She is ever suspicious of betrayal, and lets us know all about it in a number called “The Smell of Rebellion.” The only decent human being in this world is the aptly named teacher “Miss Honey”, who takes a liking to Matilda, and does what she can to protect her from the constant wrath of Boss Lady Trunchbull.
Roald Dahl is a master of the macabre, and his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a box office hit in 2005 in a film that starred Johnny Depp. The crowds in England seem to feel just as sanguine about this new work. My own reaction is that it’s too dark for mass consumption. Miss Trunchbull is no Miss Hannigan in Annie. They are both monstrous, but Hannigan is monstrous funny, Trunchbull is monstrous criminally insane.
She twirls little girls in the air by their pigtails (she hates pigtails almost as much as she hates little girls). She pulls little boys aloft by their ears, thus “stretching them” which she reasons is perfectly proper discipline. How Matilda emerged as a brilliant and seemingly well adjusted five year old after living at home with a dyed blonde mother who hates her, with a totally non-providing father and a lazy slob of a brother who doesn’t speak except in expletives, is never explained. The plot twists are fun, and the completely contrived happy ending make it impossible to feel catharsis.
The score by Dennis Kelly and book and lyrics by Tim Minchin, as blithely orchestrated by Chris Nightingale, are filled with bite and character.
The performances by Milly Shapiro as Matilda (she’s one of four young actresses who alternate in the role), by Bertie Carvel who is repeating his acclaimed performance from England as Miss Trunchbull, by Lesli Margherita and Gabriel Ebert as Matilda’s grotesque parents, and by Lauren Ward as Miss Honey could not be bettered.
There is everything on that stage except heart. There is no moment for Matilda to match “Who Will Buy” for Oliver in Oliver Twist, there is no “Maybe” for Orphan Annie in Annie, there is really no one up there onstage for whom we can root, no one for us to care about. And that’s a pity because the creators have shown intelligence and consistency of style from top to bottom.
The sets and costumes by Rob Howell, filling the entire proscenium and boxes with books and drawings that let us know we are in a cartoon school, the lighting and special effects are all there. The is a big bouncy Broadway musical show, and it looks like it’s going to have a loyal legion of fans, but, alas, I am not one of them. It’s too mean spirited for me, too cruel, and it might well scare the devil out of the little children whose mummys will probably bring them to see it, thinking it’s the perfect show for them.
But I say to those mummys: “Beware! Matilda, with its skewered view of everything from motherhood to schoolmistresses to children themselves, might find your little one waking in mortal terror during the night.”
Matilda is onstage at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue) NYC.
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: