Matilda Offers Artful Staging of a Classic Roald Dahl Book

Revolutionaries all!
Revolutionaries all!
Photo by Joan Marcus

The setup:
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a Matilda virgin.
Published in 1988, Roald Dahl's classic kid's book about little Matilda Wormwood and the transforming power of the printed page passed me by. I was a little too old to be suckered into reading kiddie lit. I also skipped the movie version because it was directed by Danny DeVito; it starred DeVito and wife Rhea Perlman. I had seen enough of them on either Taxi or Cheers to last a lifetime, so they were both blacklisted, no matter what project.

Apparently, Matilda went on to become one of Dahl's most successful works, which is saying something because his output includes James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a.k.a. “Willie Wonka...” in the film version), Fantastic Mr. Fox and such adult fare as Tales of the Unexpected, My Uncle Oswald, the sci-fi/horror anthology TV series Way Out and the screenplay for Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice. As a writer he's all over the place, but he shines brightest when he writes for children. Like the best of them, Carroll and Barrie, he drills right to the core. Children star, adults are dumb and dangerous when not outright sadistic, and the most resourceful tots must make do on their own. As in life, there may not be a happy ending. Matilda the book may be an archetype, but Matilda the musical is a revelation.

The execution:
Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010, this intoxicating show is theater incarnate. Full of magic and wonder, stage wizardry, memorable songs, a plucky heroine, a raft of singing and dancing urchins, and an outstandingly vicious villain, Miss Trunchbull, it's the kind of story kids lap up. It's not at all warm and fuzzy, but dark and crepuscular, filled with mystery and shadows, ache and poignancy. It's certainly an apt description of how kids view the mean, cruel world of adults.

Abused and unloved at home by clueless, stupid parents (spectacularly low-rent Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld) for reading books instead of watching TV, Matilda (Gabrielle Gutierrez, one of three Matildas in this U.S. touring production) loses herself – I guess that would be, finds herself – in the expansive world of literature. That is her joy. (Is there any other show in memory that celebrates such accomplishment?) She goes to the library every day, and has plowed through Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Melville's Moby-Dick, Jane Austen, Thackeray and Dickens, for a start. She's a whiz at math, too. While at the library, she begins to tell a sad story to librarian Mrs. Phelps (a warmly sympathetic Ora Jones) about a childless couple who are circus performers, but breaks off when she can't remember the rest of it. This tale grows in significance as the show progresses, later realized by shadow puppets in a brilliant mini drama all its own.

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When she enters first grade at creepy Crunchem Hall, little Matilda encounters the sublimely wicked Miss Trunchbull (a heavenly Bryce Ryness), a former gold medal Olympic hammer thrower and the school's headmistress and phys-ed teacher. With prodigious bosom, gartered stockings, severe school uniform and hair twisted into a tight topknot, she's either a marine sergeant from hell or a Stasi prison guard. She minces in delicate steps, while her head lurches in birdlike tics. Coupled with this imposing frame, she despises children, calling them “maggots,” knocking them from their desks and generally making their school days as horrid as possible. “To teach a child, you must break a child,” is her stern, unyielding credo. In the divinely inspired number “The Hammer,” the great Trunchbull struts her stuff, regaling her “little worms” with tales of glory and how to win. At one delirious point, she uses a rhythmic gymnast's ribbon, which trails after her in loony counterpoint. At the end, she flings the ribbon and it falls gracefully over one broad shoulder like a victory sash. It is perhaps one of the most perfectly timed and executed moments in any show ever.

Later, stymied by Matilda's cleverness, Trunchbull vents her anger on an innocent schoolgirl nearby. She grabs the young 'un by her pigtails, twirls the girl around, once, twice, then flings her offstage. It's deliciously cartoony but just dangerous enough to put us on edge. As the final topper, little Amanda finally drops from the flies and is caught safely by the other kids. Wonderful! And wait until you see Ryness in gym outfit and sports bra – superb! He runs with this role as if on a fiendish mission. Relishing his wickedness, he couldn't have a grander time. Neither could we.

Matilda spins her Scheherazade tale tighter into the story, which ultimately involves meek yet sympathetic Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), her first-grade teacher. Everything begins to mesh in quite unexpected harmony until Matilda displays telekinetic powers. Really? All at once, the show's magic dissipates into the ether. Doesn't she possess power enough through reading? Isn't this the true crux of the story? She's the most resourceful, intelligent kid since the Artful Dodger, for heaven's sake. “Nobody but me is going to change my story,” she sings right near the top of the show, displaying inner command and immense calm. This deus ex machina head trip tips the scales into unbidden territory. Now, suddenly, she can move cups and make chalk write on the blackboard, so why doesn't she use her force and dropkick Trunchbull out the window? Why bother with handwriting on the wall? Anyway, she doesn't need any supernatural help from Ghost, the Musical; she's got the natural power of books at her fingertips.

The verdict:
Oh well, what are you going to do? This is Dahl's whimsical sci-fi side rearing its inappropriate head. Anyway, the Tony-winning show's almost over, Tim Minchin's glorious music and lyrics carry the day; and director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling showcase their prodigious talents with effortless stagecraft, sly, subversive humor, and tremendously inventive dance arrangements that should have the makers of Spring Awakening green with envy. “When I Grow Up,” besides being one of the most exquisite anthems imaginable, derives part of its emotive power from the simple fact of swinging. What Darling does with kids on swings will take your breath away. The show is extremely energetic and beautifully produced. Take your kids and watch the magic wash across their transfixed little faces. If they don't have a good time at this uniquely different musical all about pre-teen spirit, change their meds.

One major objection: The kids' diction throughout is atrocious. Whether this is due to the faux plummy accents or tin ear vocal coaches, I couldn't say, but I missed half the words. It's difficult enough for most adult actors to convince me they're Brits, but when delivered in the high pitch of a child, this doesn't fool anybody and only compounds the problem. The staging's so spectacular and spot-on, you sort of intuit what they're supposed to be singing and saying, but Minchin's pungent lyrics and much of Dennis Kelly's book get horribly garbled. There's a lone sign in the lobby that warns of fast-paced dialogue and British inflection, and then suggests renting a wireless earpiece, like those used by the hearing impaired, to clarify what's being said onstage. Sorry, folks, that doesn't cut it. How about locking the kids in a room for a week and teaching them how to enunciate? We can work on the damn accent later. Think Trunchbull!

Matilda the Musical continues through October 18 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Puchase tickets online at tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. $30-$125.


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