Roald Dahl was not a pleasant man, but he crafted fiction that has delighted readers both young and old because of the underlying unpleasantness lurking just beneath the candy-coated surface. His best books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, are like SweeTarts that are just a bit tarter than you’d expect. That’s certainly true of the stage musical version of his 1988 novel, Matilda, now on Broadway for what should be a very long run. This London-bred phenomenon captures the wonder and innocence of childhood, but also the frustrations that face kids confronting the bitter unfairness of the adult world.
The wonder begins with the witty and hyper-literate score by Australian songwriter Tim Minchin, who has crafted several potential earworms. ”The School Song” memorably incorporates the alphabet into its lyrics, while the second-act show-stopper ”When I Grow Up” takes a simple, round-like melody and artfully sketches a pint-size perspective on the supposedly absolute freedoms of adulthood. ”When I grow up,” the chorus of kids sings, joyously taking turns on giant swings, ”I will have treats every day and I’ll play with things that mum pretends that mums don’t think are fun.”
Our heroine is a precocious, somewhat mischievous bookworm named Matilda, who’s saddled with a family that just doesn’t understand her. Dad is a pompadoured oaf (Gabriel Ebert) who dotes on his older son, a TV-fixated dolt (a hilariously deadpan Taylor Trensch). Mom is a competitive ballroom dancer, delightfully played by Lesli Margherita in full AbFab-ish superficiality. ”What you know matters less than the volume with which what you don’t know’s expressed,” she sings in the samba-tinged ”Loud,” then offers this pithy maternal advice: ”A little less brain, a lot more hair! A little less head a lot more derriere!”
The outside world proves no refuge for young Matilda, either. Though she finds the sympathetic ear of a local librarian (Lauren Aldridge) and an advocate in a pretty teacher named Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), her new school is run by a dictatorial harridan named Miss Trunchbull, played with crisp malevolence by Bertie Carvel. Surprisingly, Carvel draws on the British pantomime tradition of comedic cross-dressing while delivering a performance that is admirably devoid of camp. He plays villainy without vamping.
Trunchbull, a former Olympic-class hammer thrower, is also given some of the show’s best set pieces: e.g., tossing an unruly student by her pigtails from the stage high into the theater (in a nifty bit of stagecraft, the girl then seems to drop into the orchestra section of the audience, just in front of the eighth row or so.) Director Matthew Warchus packs the production with similar inventive touches, bolstered by Peter Darling’s playful choreography and Rob Howell’s ingenious costume and set design — which resembles an exploded Scrabble board.
A word about Matilda: Milly Shapiro, a bright-eyed girl who conveys a fine sense of spunk and righteous indignation, played the title role admirably at the performance I attended. But I have no idea why Shapiro alternates with three other girls — Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, and Bailey Ryon — since the part seems significantly less demanding than the dance-heavy lead in Billy Elliot (which had been shared by three young actors) or even Annie (which Lilla Crawford is performing solo for eight shows a week in the current revival). In fact, given the trickiness of some of Minchin’s lyrics (and the need to perform in a British accent), the young actresses might benefit from playing the role more than two or three times per week.
Even gold-star students fall short of perfection, and the same is true of Matilda. There’s a squirm-inducing dip in momentum in the second act, with a longish lull and somewhat repetitive scenes between that growing-up song and the anarchic, Spring Awakening-like final number, ”Revolting Children.” And that song is one of several whose tongue-twisting lyrics seem like a mouthful for very young performers less trained in enunciation.
On the other hand, even when you fail to pick up a well-turned phrase or eye-rolling pun, you will probably find yourself responding like a just-tucked-in child at bedtime. You want to shout, ”Again!” and demand that the cast start over from the very beginning so you might catch everything that you missed — and revel in everything that you savored the first time around. Aren’t those the best kinds of stories? A-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)