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Theater review by David Cote. Shubert Theatre (see Broadway). Book by Dennis Kelly. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Dir. Matthew Warchus. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 35mins. One intermission.
Adults are divided on the subject of children in the delectably sweet and nasty musical Matilda. Some, like the helicopter parents in the opening number, “Miracle,” dote on their spawn with gross expectation. At the opposite pole is Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel), cruel headmistress of Crunchem Hall, who abuses her charges with terms such as maggot, worm and carbuncle—when she isn’t busy flinging them bodily about school grounds. Caught in the middle is Matilda, the gifted autodidact at the center of Roald Dahl’s wonderful 1988 novel and this joyful adaptation, buoyed by a sly, inventive score by Tim Minchin. Matilda’s a born genius, but this put-upon girl is also “a little bit naughty,” as she sings. You have to be to survive in her noisome, vulgar world.
Happily, Matilda (coproduced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and already a hit in London) follows its diminutive hero’s lead: It maintains a high level of cheeky mischief while hitting the requisite sentimental notes and a refreshing antiauthoritarian message. The final number, “Revolting Children,” plays on the notion that minors can be both repugnant and a source of social upheaval: “Revolting children / Living in revolting times / We sing revolting songs / Using revolting rhymes.” There’s a lesson for you tweens: You’ve inherited a lousy culture, so why not make a song and dance about it?
Director Matthew Warchus’s pop-gothic staging, animated by Peter Darling’s herky-jerky choreography, revels in sight gags and gross-out set pieces (the first act culminates in a chubby lad forced to eat a whole chocolate cake). The stage is often awash in gruesome green or sticky pink lighting (by designer Hugh Vanstone), which gives the proceedings a nicely garish, cartoonish glow.
Minchin’s score (Chris Nightingale is credited with writing extra music), is a deft blend of Britpop, show tunes and Danny Elfman with clever (sometimes overly winking) lyrics that balance subversion with simple truths. “When I Grow Up” is a particularly affecting, wistful number that captures kids aching for adulthood, blissfully ignorant of its pains and burdens. The downside of having so many kids singing is technical: Minchin’s jam-packed lyrics can become unintelligible through the wall of prepubescent treble.
Four young women alternate in the demanding title role. I can’t vouch for three of them, but Oona Laurence, all frazzled hair and saucer eyes, gave a cloyless and plucky performance. Interestingly, although Matilda is the de facto hero, she’s more of a catalyst for others in the story. In the adult camp, Gabriel Ebert is ludicrously fun as her crooked, used-car-salesman dad (legs scissoring constantly as if he were a Cockney cricket) and Lauren Ward has touching moments as the kindly but cowed schoolteacher, Miss Honey. Lesli Margherita is wildly outré as Matilda’s mother, a salsa-dancing harridan.
Playing the evil Trunchbull in drag, Carvel doesn’t bend gender so much as break it over one knee and scrunch it up in a ball before punting it over the balcony. For English audiences, the performance is clearly grounded in Christmas panto cross-dressing. Although in the book, the character would seem to invite a bombastic, Edith Evans–type delivery, Carvel plays against type; his Trunchbull is a sinister, camp creature reminiscent of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” routine from the late ’80s.
Public-school sadism, horrid parents, men in drag: Needless to say, this material presses a lot of buttons in the English psyche, hence its runaway success across the pond. And while the show has been expertly assembled to balance sweet, sour, acidic and salty on the music-theater palate, one wonders if it’s too English for Broadway audiences. Unlike Billy Elliot, to which it will inevitably be compared, Matilda is a kids’ musical, not a musical that happens to be about a kid. As such, its attractions may be limited to younger spectators and die-hard Dahl fans. That would be a pity, since Matilda is wickedly smart and wildly fun; if your rotten mum or dad won’t go, I suggest nicking their wallets and buying tickets yourself.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote