Roald Dahl’s creation seems a bit of wish-fulfillment for bookish children across the world. Disdained by her awful parents, who are obsessed with making a buck or an impression on the telly, Matilda grows her brain so large that she can actually move objects with her mind.
That Matilda’s superhuman powers don’t manifest until Act II of this musical adaptation by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, and that they’re severely underplayed in director Matthew Warchus’s production, reads oddly even for young fans of Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel (and its 1996 American film adaptation). Minchin’s score contains a few grabby songs and there's much visual imagination in Warchus's staging, but Kelly’s book, though faithful to Dahl’s, feels disjointed.
The most remarkable thing about the U.S. touring production, which was led on press night in Chicago by Lily Brooks O’Briant as Matilda (the role is shared on tour by a trio of young actresses), was the lead character’s bizarre diction; she seemed to be following direction (unheard by her fellow child actors) to play Matilda as a space alien. The adults in the cast, including Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld as Matilda’s parents, Jennifer Blood and Ora Jones as Matilda’s grownup allies and David Abeles as ultra-authoritarian headmistress Miss Trunchbull, make far stronger impressions.
Oriental Theatre. Book by Dennis Kelly. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Directed by Matthew Warchus. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.