Elisabeth VincentelliBlog: Theater
MATILDA THE MUSICAL
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.
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.