If you managed to purge Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka from your brain, good for you, and sorry for the reminder.
Tim Burton’s film was proof that the late, great Roald Dahl does not always get the treatment he deserves, which makes it all the better to report that ‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical’ is as magnificent as the buzz. Actually, it’s better.
It won the record number of Olivier Awards, the British equivalent of the Tonys, and the production at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre proves why.
Tim Minchin‘s music and lyrics are excellent, and Dennis Kelly‘s book perfectly captures Dahl’s acerbic wit. It is over the top, but stops short of being cartoonish.
The beauty of this production is that it honors Dahl’s work by being incredibly witty and clever and knowing that children are often far smarter than some adults realize. Dahl knew adults can be jerks and mean. He never talked down to kids, and neither does this. No one winks at the audience.
If anyone would be winking, that would be Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. He steals the show — not easy to do when everyone on stage is this talented. Carvel, in his Broadway debut, plays the sadistic headmistress of Matilda’s school. It would be easy to camp it up as a drag queen, but instead Carvel plays her as the tyrannical beast that she is.
Four girls take turns playing Matilda, and Milly Shapiro is excellent at this performance. Matilda, for those who have not delighted in Dahl (and if not, download, withdraw it from the library, borrow it from a friend, buy it, just read him), is a brilliant little girl born into a family of idiots, the Wormwoods.
Collectively they have no redeeming qualities. Matilda was unwanted at birth and remained so. Her mother (Lesli Margherita) is a flashy ballroom dancer with a greasy dance partner, Rudolpho (Phillip Spaeth), who does justice to a plunge-neck, leather, bell-bottom jumpsuit. She’s a peroxide blonde in a tight sequined skirt, and considers being loud far more important than being educated.
Mrs. Wormwood tells Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), “Looks are more important than books. It looks to me you chose books. I chose looks.”
Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert) calls Matilda a boy, because that’s what he wanted, and he spends his time cooking up schemes to defraud people, including, Russian mobsters, which is just a bad idea. Her brother has the mental acuity of a rock and fittingly is the parents’ favorite child.
Matilda’s only solace is in books. Before she has started school, Matilda read Dickens, Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, the last after teaching herself Russian. Her only refuge is in the library, where the kind Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge, “Boss”) listens spellbound to Matilda’s stories and keeps her supplied with books.
As soon as Matilda starts school, just how special she is becomes evident. Surrounded by children whose over-indulging parents have convinced themselves that their rather doltish offspring are geniuses, Matilda, as a legitimate genius, stands out even more. Here, Matilda can make friends and find an ally in her teacher.
In the school, the musical lets loose with excellent numbers, including “The Hammer” and “The Chokey Chant.”
Miss Trunchbull has the sort of femininity once associated with women who took steroids and competed at the Olympics for the former Soviet Union. Indeed, she was a champion hammer thrower and continues to use her skill by flinging about children, whom she calls maggots.
The numbers all feel slightly longer than typical Broadway numbers, but are not too long. Each song is a production, and Peter Darling’s choreography is great fun, especially the number in which the students sail out on swings.
Every other aspect of the show keeps up with the music. The casting is excellent. Miss Honey is just the right amount of timid and righteous. Matilda, who has mental powers beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, commands the stage in a way that seems impossible for a child who can still ride the subway for free.
Rob Howell’s costumes and sets are a riot. He makes great use of the theater, which has some seats removed and actors work from the audience. He inventively uses lasers. The main set, of books, and seemingly random letters — look carefully, they spell out different words — is just right for Matilda.
Like any great musical, Matilda has showstoppers and singers who can belt it. It also has something most producers could only dream of: a built-in audience with the generations of readers who adore Dahl. Dahl knew that not every ending has to be a happy; sometimes parents leave children and sometimes that’s for the best.
In the case of Matilda, it could not be better.