Half a Matilda is better than none, one decides.
The challenge of fitting this Broadway show into the wide and deep Opera House stage compromises the exuberance and dark energy of Matilda The Musical, based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name that speaks resonantly and honestly about some of the bleaker aspects of childhood and being accepted and celebrated for who you are.
Sending this boisterous show across the footlights and beyond the orchestra pit proves a daunting task, as sound problems dogged the Friday night performance of the much-lauded musical. Lyrics and dialogue are swallowed up by the vast stage or drowned out by the orchestra pumping out the raucous, catchy rock score. You felt sorry for the child actors in the cast, over-enunciating as if trapped in an infernal spelling bee. Come to think of it, the adult actors deserve sympathy too, as they strain to be heard and understood.
For some reason, scenic designer Rob Howell’s enchanting bibliophile set–chock-a-block with winding, teetering stacks of books, letters and lovely words—seems distant and lost, with much of the action taking place way in the back of the stage. The effect from the orchestra seats is like peering at the show through a spy glass.
However, the persistent charms of Matilda prevail and you get a good sense of why the musical continues to delight Broadway audiences and was such a hit in its original London production.
The show centers on the struggles of Matilda (Mabel Tyler at Friday’s performance; Tori Feinstein and Gabrielle Gutierrez are the other two Matildas), a wunderkind with a fantastical imagination.
Rather than praised and pampered like other children (as seen in the opening song “Miracle,” an ode to helicopter parents), Matilda is seen as a plague by her crass, loud parents, Mr. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld), a crude and low-rent gangster, and peroxided Mrs. Wormwood (Cassie Silva), a ballroom dancing floozie, sorta like Patsy from “Ab Fab” without the designer duds.
Her father prefers to call Matilda a boy (“I’m a girl!” she corrects) and epithets about what a worm she is and both parents think she is a degenerate because she reads voraciously instead of watching TV like her moron brother Michael (Danny Tieger).
Matilda, like so many misunderstood children, takes solace in the library, which is a wonderland of escape and knowledge. A supportive librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones), sees how special Matilda is and encourages her reading and especially her knack for making up extravagant, cliffhanger stories.
School is hellish as well, presided over by the battleaxe Miss Trunchbull (a scene-snatching king of comedic timing, Bryce Ryness, keeping in the panto tradition of women’s parts played by men), a headmistress who must have been trained by the Stasi, who believes that children should be goosestepping and not heard. From the top of her samurai-like hairdo to her formidable bosom clad in a khaki uniform with a kick-pleat skirt, Miss Trunchbull (a former Olympic shotputter, no less) is floridly, fabulously horrible.
Matilda’s saving grace is her teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood, in fine voice), who recognizes Matilda’s genius and who has a sad narrative of her own. With the help of Miss Honey and a clump of feisty school children, Matilda comes into her power and squashes oppression and cruelty.
Children in the audience applauded Matilda’s living-out-loud boldness and her naughty pranks, as well as those masterminded by the other children. Adults and kids came together to swoon over “When I Grow Up,” a wistful number about aspirations and will, that features soaring vocals and gliding choreography on swings.
In that song, the impetuous, persistent spirit of Matilda and her chums comes shining through, right up to the cheap seats. With luck, the rest of the show will overcome its sound and staging challenges so audiences don’t have to work so hard to enjoy Matilda.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical . Book: Dennis Kelly . Music and lyrics: Tim Minchin . Director: Matthew Warchus . Featuring: Mabel Tyler, Cassie Silva, Quinn Mattfeld, Danny Tieger, Ora Jones, Bryce Ryness, Jennifer Blood, Evan Gray, Charlie Kersh, Cal Alexander, Kayla Vinueza-Amistad, Aristotle Rock, Cassidy Hagel, Megan McGuff, Jordan Hall . Orchestrations and additional music by Chris Nightingale . Set and costume design: Rob Howell . Lighting design: Hugh Vanstone . Choreography: Peter Darling . The First National Touring Company presented at The Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.