I had to borrow a kid to go see Matilda. I also had to put aside my usual prejudice towards musicals. But no one was forcing Matilda on me. It was my memories of the hours reading Roald Dahl books to my children that made me want to go. I knew his stories wouldn’t fail me, even if music had been added to them as a way to lengthen the plot to a 2 hours and 40-minutes.
I was right, it was worthwhile. The kid I took was just as smitten with the ornate décor of the Oriental Theatre as I was. She was just as in to opening night people-watching, and when the action started she marvelled at the production value and acting between songs, even admitting to me that she got a little teary for one or two numbers. For the record, I was moved to tears myself during one father and daughter scene, the one where the imaginary father says loving things to Matilda—the girl who has been cursed with two buffoonish and self-centered morons for parents. In fact, the audience, which was largely populated with kids, did seem to really enjoy watching those cartoonish parents being lambasted.
The main gist is that Matilda is really smart and loves to read, unlike her telly-focused family. Her father can’t fathom that she isn’t a boy and her mother is obsessed with dance competitions. It isn’t until Matilda goes off to school and meets her teacher Ms. Honey, that she finds someone who appreciates her abilities and then the plot thickens with new characters to complicate things a bit.
The music by Tim Minchin (musical comedian from Australia) rises above the predictable and goes in to the amusing realm, beginning with the first number, “Miracle,” in which costumed kids at a birthday party prance around explaining how much their parents adore them and lavish them with praise. From there the numbers get more and more hilarious. The choreography by Peter Darling was punchy and matched the music to a tee and the set was clever and versatile. For example, on the first day of school, the appropriately named “School Song” occurred, with the older kids terrifying the newcomers with a series of dance moves and letter-block arrangements that poked fun at childish things.
As the story develops, Matilda, played on this night by Lily Brooks O’Briant, grew on the audience, becoming more confident and developed as a character as the performer herself seemed to do the same. Ms. Honey, played by Jennifer Blood, captured that kindergarten teacher sweetness. But it was Mr. Wormwood’s (Quinn Mattfeld, Matilda’s father) and Miss Trunchbull’s (David Abeles) performance that really brought it home with their rousing numbers and comic performances.
There is some unfortunate casting in the play with the presence of the older schoolmates who do a great job at singing and dancing but happen to suffer from actual adulthood, an anomaly which makes them stand out awfully next to the children who play Matilda’s classmates to great effect. They might have done better to cast capable teenagers, who at least plausibly could have been peers to the kids. Another small issue is that the Broadway adaptation of Matilda is true to the British origins of the story, unlike the movie, but the children themselves are not English, which means that they must have undergone some language coaching. The result is a noticeably strange cadence, as if each child was trying very hard to enunciate. Fortunately, as the show wore on and they relaxed in to their roles, that oddity seemed to dissolve.
The lush production, the quirky music, the stellar acting and the engaging plot (telekinesis is worth the wait) makes Matilda the kind of show that parents, grandparents and the children (age 7 and up due to the length of the play) can really celebrate together. It’s no wonder that Matilda has won four Tony awards and has a creative and production staff full of previous Tony award winners.
Matilda is at Oriental Theatre until April 10, and tickets range from $25-$123.