Rejoice, my theatergoing comrades. The children’s revolution has arrived on these shores, and it is even more glorious than we were promised. Rush now, barricade stormers of culture, to the Shubert Theater, and join the insurrection against tyranny, television, illiteracy, unjust punishment and impoverished imaginations, led by a 5-year-old La Pasionaria with a poker face and an off-the-charts I.Q.
“Matilda the Musical,” the London import that opened on Thursday night, is the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain, where it was nurtured into life by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In many ways this production would seem to be an example of show business as usual: It’s inspired by a book (the children’s novel of the same nameby Roald Dahl) which was turned into a movie (in 1996).And in its melding of song, dance and story it’s as classic as “Oklahoma!”
But within its traditional form “Matilda” works with astonishing slyness and grace to inculcate us with its radical point of view. “Matilda,” you see, is about words and language, books and stories, and their incalculable worth as weapons of defense, attack and survival. It’s about turning the alphabet into magic, and using it to rule the world.
If I have made “Matilda” sound like a self-important “Sesame Street,” then I’ve led you astray. As directed by Matthew Warchus, with a bright, efficient book by Dennis Kelly and addictive songs by Tim Minchin, “Matilda” is as much an edge-of-the-seats nail biter as a season-finale episode of “Homeland.”
Above all it’s an exhilarating tale of empowerment, as told from the perspective of the most powerless group of all. I mean little children. Brilliantly designed by Rob Howell and lighted by Hugh Vanstone, with choreography to match by Peter Darling (“Billy Elliot”), “Matilda” captures the particular dread that runs like an icy rivulet through even the happiest childhoods. You know what I mean: the nagging awareness of the monster under the bed, the bully on the bus, the first day of school and the teacher who lurks there to make your life a humiliating hell.
It’s principally that teacher that occupies our Matilda Wormwood, played the night I saw the show by the marvelous Milly Shapiro, who resembles an avenging cherub from a Renaissance day of judgment painting. (The part is played in rotation by three other actresses, Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence and Bailey Ryon.) And I promise you have never met a teacher who inspires fear and loathing as commandingly and wittily as Miss Trunchbull, portrayed by the incomparable Bertie Carvel as a fascist on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Before we address Matilda’s school days, though, let’s consider her less-than-rosy home life. Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert) is a sleazy used-car salesman who dotes on Matilda’s television-stunted older brother (Taylor Trensch) and calls his daughter “boy” (since he wanted another son). Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita) is a Technicolor study in middle-class vulgarity who lives for ballroom dancing competitions. Her credo: “Looks, not books.”
The printed word is regarded in the Wormwood household as kiddie pornography might be looked upon in others. And it drives Mom and Dad bonkers that their 5-year-old can’t take her nose out of Dickens or Dostoyevsky. Little do they know that in books lie Matilda’s salvation, as she reveals in her first solo, “Naughty,” a song with words to live by about rewriting your own story. (Those doomed couples Romeo and Juliet, undone by “love and fate and a touch of stupidity,” and Jack and Jill show up as examples of what to avoid.)
The elements of storytelling have been laid out for us from the beginning. When first seen, Mr. Howell’s set is an airy wonderland of large letter-bearing tiles and bookcases. It suggests the endless supply from which Matilda (and vicariously we) can draw to make words, which make sentences, which make stories. (Notice how it’s often the children who move the parts of the set, including those alphabet blocks, into place for changes of scene.)
Stories are useful for translating the unhappiness of dull daily life into exotic, dramatic fantasies (as Matilda does to enrapture a librarian, engagingly played by Karen Aldridge). Or as fabrications to save the skins of school friends. Or even to connect uncannily with the hidden life and thoughts of a kindred spirit, like Miss Honey (the lovely Lauren Ward), the gentle young schoolteacher who becomes Matilda’s mentor and mentee.
Miss Honey is under the meaty thumb of the Trunchbull, the headmistress of a school whose motto is “Bambinatum est maggitum” (“Children are maggots”). As played by Mr. Carvel, in a performance that breaks the mold of cross-dressing on Broadway, Miss Trunchbull has the look of a precocious child’s cartoon of a hated authority figure come to life to seek revenge for the rendering. Broad of shoulder (she was the hammer-throwing champion of Britain) and short of neck, she stalks the halls of her establishment like a steroid-pumped bird of prey.
Yet Miss Trunchbull is no shrieking gargoyle. This rule-and-order-obsessed figure talks softly and precisely and wriggles her fingers with the artistic menace of a coroner preparing to skin a corpse. At 13, I was taught by a Miss Trunchbull (though she was prettier), and I recognize the dementedness within Mr. Carvel’s portrait. This show dares to take us briefly inside the darkest interiors of the Trunchbull’s mind, in a number in which she imagines a world without children, and it’s scarier than any spook house.
Mr. Minchin’s score is infused throughout with a Gothic strain, which sometimes assumes the form of “Dark Shadows“ organ chords. (Chris Nightingale is the inspired orchestrator.) Best known for his stand-up satire songs, Mr. Minchin delivers plenty of swipes at deserving targets, including parents who make their children their religion, in the opening number, “Miracle.”
But he is never merely clever, a restraint that speaks to this musical’s point that intellect doesn’t have to trump emotion. He has written some lyrically expressive charmers for Matilda and Miss Honey, which identify them as soul mates in loneliness. These songs are not made of brass; nothing is in “Matilda,” except for the numbers deliciously performed by the Wormwood parents, paeans to television and to the virtues of being loud.
As for the child performers, who are supplemented by adults portraying children, I mean it as the highest praise when I say they are not adorable. Or aggressively bratty or scene stealing. They occupy most convincingly that anxious state of siege we call childhood. This is evident even in their dancing, which ranges from a torturous phys-ed sequence that tied a knot in my stomach and an anthem of liberation, “Revolting Children,” which Mr. Darling has choreographed with a wink at Bill T. Jones’s work on “Spring Awakening.”(One caveat: Though the child performers have mastered their English accents nicely, they need to strengthen their diction, the better to put across Mr. Minchin’s tasty lyrics.)
That’s about it for references to other shows. Mostly “Matilda” exists entirely on its own terms, to serve and to celebrate the story, without the hard-sell tactics that are usually a musical’s lifeblood. In the first act Matilda sings, “If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out/ You don’t have to cry and you don’t have to shout.”
You just have to use your imagination and think everything through carefully, so it’s all of a piece. That’s what the creators of “Matilda” have done. Such strategy should be obvious. But in the current landscape of Broadway it’s applied rarely enough to make this show feel truly revolutionary.
Matilda the Musical
Book by Dennis Kelly; music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, based on the novel by Roald Dahl; directed by Matthew Warchus; choreography by Peter Darling; sets and costumes by Rob Howell; orchestrations and additional music by Chris Nightingale; sound by Simon Baker; lighting by Hugh Vanstone; illusions by Paul Kieve; associate choreographers, Ellen Kane and Kate Dunn; associate directors, Thomas Caruso, Luke Sheppard and Lotte Wakeham; dramaturgy by Jeanie O’Hare; voice director, Andrew Wade; musical director, David Holcenberg; music coordinator, Howard Joines; production stage manager, Kelly A. Martindale; company manager, Kimberly Kelley; production manager, Aurora Productions; executive producers, Denise Wood and André Ptaszynski; general manager, Dodger Management Group. Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers. At the Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.
WITH: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro (Matilda), Bertie Carvel (Miss Trunchbull), Gabriel Ebert (Mr. Wormwood), Lesli Margherita (Mrs. Wormwood) and Lauren Ward (Miss Honey).