Energetic, heart-warming and wildly inventive, Matilda the musical is a force of nature that is equal parts funny, touching and downright scary. Crossing the Atlantic basically intact, the West End hit is now thrilling Broadway audiences, with Australia hopefully the next port of call.
It is a rare piece of popular entertainment that dares to treat its audience, both young and old, with respect, but Dennis Kelly’s book zips along making subversive points on education and humanity while unfolding an intriguing mystery that relies on the audience’s intelligence. Tim Minchin’s lyrics, which are somewhat more memorable than his music, are equally witty, continuously rewarding the listener for their keen attention. The lyric “my mummy says I’m a miracle” certainly rings true to a theatre reviewer who teaches high school maths by day.
If you missed Roald Dahl’s story, as this Gen X reader had, avoid spoilers, as there are some delightful twists and turns along the way.
Brilliant director Matthew Warchus crafts the type of stage magic he created in The Lords of the Rings, with each aspect of the creative process fitting together seamlessly to make a cohesive, wonderfully entertaining whole. Rob Howell’s sets immerse the crowd in a magical array of chalkboards and letter tiles that look as if they have been tossed by the handful across the pro arch and stuck where they landed. Everything is boxes and squares and books, with sets gliding simply into place to allow constant action. Howell’s costumes add to the fun and colour, drawing the characters in picture book strokes that complement the storytelling perfectly.
The choreography of Peter Darling (Billy Elliot) is energetic and incredibly precise, with the children given as much, or perhaps even more, to do than the adults. An example of the tight integration of the production team comes in “School Song” when the cast add blocks to the set in alphabetical order which are climbed on in time to the corresponding words in the lyrics.
The title role is a darling one, set to launch the careers of many a young actress lucky, and talented, enough to play it. Bailey Ryon played Matilda at this performance, and she was a definite triple threat, with the requisite mixture of being adorably winsome and cheerfully plucky.
Delightful children aside, the acting centerpiece of the show is the diabolically sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull. Not since Joan ‘the Freak’ Ferguson has a female character taken such malevolent glee in her abuse of power. London’s Bertie Carvel recreates his whispering, glaring, highly physical characterisation on Broadway, thrilling the crowd and surely terrifying many a young child. The presence of this insidious character, along with Matilda’s appalling parents, completely avoids the inbuilt danger for saccharine sentimentality in shows about children.
Lauren Ward, also from the original London cast, is a beacon of sweetness as the aptly named Miss Honey. Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita are wickedly funny as Matilda’s parents, the Wormwoods. Karen Aldridge is warm and charming as affectionate librarian Mrs Phelps.
Unless unanimously and unfairly blocked out by the Broadway community, Matilda is sure to win Best Musical at this year’s Tony Awards. Surely the gods of theatre will then bestow a production on Australia before too long.
Matilda has an open-ended run at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.