NY Post review: Matilda, one for the books!

NY Post review: Matilda, one for the books!



‘Matilda’ is one for the books

  • Last Updated: 10:45 AM, April 12, 2013
  • Posted: 10:13 PM, April 11, 2013
Elisabeth Vincentelli
Blog: Theater

Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.; 212-239-6200. Running time: 160 minutes, one intermission.

Once in a blue moon, a show comes out blazing and restores your faith in Broadway. “Matilda The Musical” is that show.

“Matilda” landed at the Shubert Theatre with daunting advance word from its London run: We were told this Royal Shakespeare Company production was simultaneously arty and crowd-pleasing, irreverent and uplifting, appealing to children and adults, blah blah blah.

For once, you can believe the hype. A treat for ears and eyes, brain and heart, the glorious “Matilda” has it all — plus lasers!

Story-wise, the show sticks closely to Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel about the title’s brainy 5-year-old, who uses her wiles — and handy telekinetic powers — to stand up to her tormentors.

Joan Marcus
Lauren Ward (left) plays sweet teacher Miss Honey and Bertie Carvel (right) stars as tough-as-nails headmistress Miss Trunchbull in Britain’s latest gift to Broadway, the enchanting “Matilda The Musical.”

But the faithfulness isn’t just literal: The musical captures Dahl’s irreverent spirit and sadistic black humor. The victories are all the sweeter for not being handled sweetly.

Young Matilda (Milly Shapiro, 10, one of four girls rotating in the part) knows her times tables and tears though several novels a day. Not that it matters to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (the hilariously cartoonish Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita), who are far more interested in themselves and their idiotic, TV-addicted son, Michael (Taylor Trensch), and are sickened by Matilda’s love of reading.

“Charlotte Bronte, do not want-ee,” the father sings. “Jane Austen, in the compostin’/James Joyce? Doesn’t sound noice.”

Matilda finds comfort in the world of stories — she makes up her own, too — and in her sympathetic teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward). Together they face the bullying headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, played in ferocious drag by Bertie Carvel like a cross between a prison warden and a boot-camp drill sergeant.

“I shall consign you to the seventh circle of hell, child,” Trunchbull screams at a boy who stole a slice of her chocolate cake. “You shall be destroyed!”

Throughout, Shapiro, looking like an old soul with intense focus, made it clear Matilda would not be cowed.

We’re very far from the pandering junk that so often passes for family entertainment — looking at you, “Spider-Man” — an impression compounded by Tim Minchin’s witty, inventive score, which marries catchy melodies with rollicking multisyllable rhymes:

“And you may bet your britches/This headmistress/Finds this foul odifer-ous-ness/Wholly olfactorily insulting,” Trunchbull sings after sniffing a “smell of rebellion” among the students.

To balance this wordy naughtiness, director Matthew Warchus sets a speedy pace and packs in broad physical comedy, including gigantic burps, exaggerated grimaces and energetic dancing — choreographed by Peter Darling, late of “Billy Elliot.”

As Warchus did in “God of Carnage” and “Boeing-Boeing,” he also pays great attention to style. Each scene is gorgeously composed and lit against Rob Howell’s set — a wild mosaic of letter tiles that looks like the aftermath of a “Scrabble” explosion.

It’s only fitting that a show about a little girl in love with storytelling should do such a memorable job of it.

Children of the World, Unite!

Children of the World, Unite!


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. 


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“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).