Amazing, isn’t it, that every one of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories feature kids who are being mistreated, neglected, and denigrated and that every one of Dahl’s books, especially Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are such children’s favorites? Of course, all of the lead characters, such as Matilda, triumph wonderfully in the end, but Dahl rakes children through scenes of horror, degradation, humiliation, assault on self-worth, and mortal danger before granting them their due, which sometimes means a kid being turned into a blueberry or being reduced to the size and thickness of a postage stamp. Yet, Dahl is wildly popular, and this musical version of MATILDA with a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin benefits from Dahl’s lionization.
From a theatrical point of view, it deserves its international audience and international praise. Director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling show much theatrical creativity in their exciting Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Kelly and Minchin’s work.
Some of MATILDA’s sequences go on far too long and wear out their welcome, but the general story about a literate, precocious five-year-old who retains her courage and self-esteem against all odds comes off as interesting and entertaining with several effects that enhance Dahl’s deliciously sarcastic way of presenting his material.
The touring production seems broader than its New York counterpart and much less harsh than the London original. Miss Trunchbull was genuinely monstrous and dreaded in London, truly fearsome. Now she’s just as comic a figure as she is a person to summon horror at the mention of her name or sound of her earth-shaking footfall. Matilda’s parents were even more dismissive in New York and London than they are on the American road.
This softening takes some of the bite and enjoyment from MATILDA. It seems more sardonic than caustic or tough, but it continues to entertain, and that’s the main thing. Mabel Tyler, one of three who portray Matilda on tour, is a loveable, believable actress who makes you like Matilda and genuinely root for her to have a better childhood. After all, when we meet Matilda, we hear her Crunchem classmates singing how their parents think they are miracles, the smartest people in the world, the cutest, the most talented, the prettiest, name your positive adjective. Then we see Matilda being called an idiot, teased for reading, reprimanded for not watching television, and being told she is no good mistake no one wanted when she was conceived and no one wants now. Especially if she is going to be so different from the rest of her family and most of the children at Crunchem.
MATILDA is about a perceptive girl trying to find her way to happiness against all odds. Tyler embodies that perception and augments it with unyielding confidence in her intellect. Call her an idiot. She doesn’t mind. She knows better. Besides, she has a teacher and librarian to offer praise and gratification and the savvy to lie when people comment about how proud she must make her family.
Not every sequence in Kelly and Minchin’s musical engages. Some seem redundant. But they all show the obstacles Matilda faces as she tries to make things better for herself and the teacher who motivates her and whom she loves. That teacher is played splendidly by Jennifer Blood in the MATILDA tour. Blood exudes Miss Honey’s goodness so clearly, she becomes another you want to see triumph over mediocrity, withheld emotions, and Miss Trunchbull’s strangling meanness.
Bryce Ryness is a spry and sinister Trunchbull. He is amazing as he vaults clean over a gymnastic horse in one scene. Ryness doesn’t strike fear and much as comic dread, but he well represents all children fear from authority, especially authority that will use its position and adult might to subjugate and cow children. When sheer terror is not enough, Ryness’s Trunchbull always has the threat of going to “chokey” to hold over her charges’ heads.
Chokey, derived from the colonial Indian word for British jails, is one of Dahl’s more sadomasochistic inventions. It’s a cage in which spikes in the walls and on the floors force a child to stand perfectly still or risk getting impaled.
Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva are marvelous as Matilda’s outlandishly portrayed parents. Mattfeld drips the vain, larcenous, status-seeking, anti-intellectual traits that fuel his dismissive, dishonest life. He barely notices Matilda, except to recoil from her constant reading and calls her “boy” most of the time. Silva exudes a different kind of self-absorption, the garish but constant consumer who cares mostly about how she looks and how she’ll fare in her next ballroom dance contest with her partner/lover Rudolpho, played hilariously by Jaquez Andre Sims. Matilda’s mother continues to resent that Matilda’s surprise birth kept her from a major competition. She barely notices her daughter. Or her son, who doesn’t need notice since all he does is live his father’s dream existence and mindlessly spend waking hours watching “telly,” speaking only to repeat inanities. As played by Danny Tieger, Matilda’s brother comes off as what in the pre-enlightened ’60s we would refer to as “retarded.” (Yeah, it’s a word and perfectly descriptive in this context, so get over it, sourpuss!)
The children in MATILDA are amazing talented, if a tad too self-consciously so. None of the supporting cast has the natural, real-life feel that Tyler projects. The kids are nearly sabotaged by the wretched sound system at the Academy of Music, so their numbers don’t register as much more than dance. Sound designers these days have a habit of overamplifying, i.e., making mikes too hot. That’s why orchestras at the Academy often sound tinny or, worse, recorded instead of live. The kids in MATILDA all sing in a high-pitched squeal, a register than is more jeopardized by overmiking than lower voices. The combination of overamplification and the children’s pitch obliterates all sound and makes every lyric a child other than Tyler sings totally unintelligible. As a group, the kids in MATILDA sound like one big infected adenoid that needs to be removed. Worse, any wit Minchin put in his lyrics for the children is lost in the Academy ether.
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