“Matilda”! What a beautiful name! I thought, exiting the blindingly brilliant British blockbuster of the same name that just hit the heights on Broadway. A generation of little girls will now be named after its’ stalwart, brainy, pint-sized heroine.
At a purported five years old, Matilda is speaking, but not talking down, to the conflicted little girl in all of us, and rafts of little ones are in for the treat of their lives, and their parents, too, when they see “Matilda: The Musical” And they will see it in hoardes. “Matilda” is something they will never forget.
It’s so thoroughly original. I felt like I had never seen anything like it in the theater and on Broadway, yet.Is Bway known for originality these days? No.
But this empowering, powerhouse of positivity just sends you out of the theater practically jumping for joy!
A hit show espousing, literacy! Reading! Books! Librarians! Libraries! Incredible!
I just realized that the closest thing I can compare it to is the brilliant film “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, last year’s indie film hit of hits that ended up with five Oscar nominations. “Matilda” is like “Beasts” in that they both so completely project a little girl’s eye view of the world.And it’s not always a pretty-in-pink world that they see. Scary, weird, frightening, horrifying is the world Matilda is confronted with.
Five year old Matilda Wormword is even younger than Qu’venzhane Wallis’ six year old Hushpuppy. A survivor of Hurricane Katrina. Matilda is a survivor of HER AWFUL PARENTS. And the cold, cruel adult world that is constantly threatening to destroy her. And take away her sole refuge, her books, and her love of reading…
Another writer that this Roald Dahl based, super-smart musical( book by Dennis Kelly, Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin) reminded me of was Charles Dickens. But not “Oliver” the musical version of Oliver Twist, which seems treacly sweet compared to the dark creepiness of “Matilda.” Dickens found his greatest inspiration in the lives and point of view of orphans. David Copperfield’s opening sentence and proclamation “I am born”, is echoed in “Matilda”s first number “Miracle”. Which is about child-birth and most parents’ ecstatic reaction to their off-springs’ arrivals in this not-inviting world.
Matilda’s parents’ HATE her. Actively, passionately HATE her, and refuse to acknowledge their incredibly smart daughter’s amazing mind. Or even her gender. Her stupid, oafish father keeps calling her “son” but Matilda keeps insisting “I’m a girl!” This horrible trope keeps get repeated all night long, wearing poor Matilda down to a nub.
Her peroxided harridan of a Cockney-Mother-From-Hell, over-played to the hilt by Lesli Margherita, is shocking in her screechy “Looks! Not Books!” mantras of superficiality. Her solo is, of course, “Loud!” She is matched by the slightly more sympathetic(but really pathetic) sleazy, used-car salesman husband, Gabriel Ebert. The duo torment poor little Matilda to the point of child abuse. She torments her father back by dying his hair green and gluing his hat to his head.
Matilda’s only refuge from them is local public library and an earthy, interested librarian, the marvelously daffy but dignified Mrs. Phleps. Karen Aldredge should’ve had a big number herself. She would’ve brought down the house.
Instead, we get a bit too much of a focus on the super-sweet Miss Honey, who is one of the more, shakily drawn characters, in that she has toooo many musical numbers. Lauren Ward’s interpretation of the helpful, but timid school-teacher, who sees Matilda’s brilliance and wants it to develop, was so cloying, irritatingly sweet, I felt my diabetes acting up. She pretty much wore out her welcome in the first act, but did redeem herself in the second, where it’s touchingly revealed how poor she is in the number “My House.” She lives in a shack.
The dull, clanking sound you hear just when you think “Matilda” is just hopelessly child-centric is the entrance of the scary, villainess to end all villanesses, Miss Trunchbull. And that resounding clanking is also the sound of the endless awards that British comic Bertie Carvel,( yes, he’s a man, playing Miss Truchbull in bad, frightening, brown drag) hitting the stage at Mr. Carvel’s feet, as all the awards-giving bodies rise as one and just HURL Tonys, Drama Desks, and every other award in the theater world at him.
And he deserves them. With his hair in a tight-brown bun, a huge brown mole on his upper lip, his grotesquely large breasts, and his brown/grey skirt hiked quite high on his hairy legs (in sensible brown shoes), Mr. Carvel never lets you for a moment forget that he’s a man, playing a monster. And then humanizes the monstrous Ms. Trunchbull, too. Wow.
Carvel is not a one-note horror, he’s a layered delight. And his brown brogues kick “Matilda” upstairs, literally, as his astounding re-interpretation of the age-old British pantomime staple, the drag queen Dame, becomes in Carvel’s hands something bold, original, hilarious and in the number “A World Without Children” suddenly surprisingly touching, too. The British Gold Medal champion women’s hammer-thrower yearns for his/her glory days and at one point early in the proceedings hurls a hapless pig-tailed girl into the air. A coup-de-theatre followed by many, many more.
Main among them, the burping Bruce Bogtrotter, of the bold Jack Broderick, who it seems wants to devour all the chocolate cake in the world, and who is then made my Miss Truchbull to do so in the hilarious/scary “Bruce.” Broderick then gets to belt out the climatic anthem “Revolting Children.”
And Matilda herself? Well, there are four little girls who alternate in this super-demanding role of roles for a child actress, but I saw Milly Shapiro. Who had the face and power of a young Charles Laughton(I’m not kidding). As she forcefully puts her hand on her hip to face a threatening, creepy, lying, hostile universe AND HER PARENTS, you KNOW that this tiny Matilda is truly a genius and a warrior who will take on the whole world. And win!
“Matilda” may be the biggest Tony Award winner since “The Producers” and is settling into the Schubert for a long, long run.
Matilda! You GO, girl!