If New York City’s Shubert Theatre were a book, it would be Matilda Wormwood’s favorite kind. Inside the white-stone walls of the Gatsby-era playhouse, a teacher with a heart of gold shares the magic of learning with students, an Olympian turned headmistress occasionally practices her hammer throw on belligerent adolescents and touches of magic help stories come alive through the eyes of one little girl.
This is the world of Broadway’s “Matilda the Musical,” the Great White Way’s latest London import brought to life by the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s a storied place where words literally jump off the page in the letters adorning the stage, droves of 10 year-olds become singing and dancing sensations for six nights a week and the antics of the actors as they rush through the aisles invite the audience to be part of the action.
“Matilda” is like one big magical book, which funnily enough it is – this newest musical re-imagining taking its cue from Roald Dahl’s beloved chapter book of the same name. But for all its choreographic bliss, cheekily addictive songs and Broadway magic, the story of the little girl at the center of it all, Matilda herself, isn’t all chorus lines and confetti. Despite having her name glistening in all its 100-watt glory from the Shubert’s marquee, Matilda’s story is actually rather sad. But the funny thing, about life and Broadway alike, is that hope always seems to shine from the darkest of places. And no matter who we are, we all have the ability to stop at any time, take the pen and begin once again to write our own stories – just like a little girl named Matilda.
For a tale whose plot revolves around one young girl’s love of reading and school, “Matilda” has lent itself to a few surprising adaptations. Take the 1996 film version directed by Danny DeVito. There the grittiness of 1980s California served as a backdrop for a repressed reader trapped in the suburbia of TV dinners and sleazy car salesmen. Under the Broadway lights, “Matilda” retains the familiar premise of a bright girl stuck in a not-so-bright family, while playing up Dahl’s classic British sensibility in lieu of throwback ‘80s Americana. But if you’re thinking this is going to be just another children’s bedtime tale delivered in a lilting British accent, think again.
“Matilda the Musical” maintains all the snarkiness of DeVito’s film re-creation and then some. Thanks in part to director Matthew Warchus’ fast-paced staging and comedian turned composer Tim Minchin’s contagious and unabashedly cheeky score, “Matilda” is “The Sound of Music,” Friends and Scandal all rolled into one – classic, hilarious and dangerously addictive.
The production opens with small children decked out in birthday regalia proclaiming what their parents have told them since the day they entered the world: they are miracles. “My mummy says I’m a miracle, one look at my face, and it’s plain to see” the kids sing in the aptly titled “Miracle.” The number serves as a rousing beginning to what’s sure to be a pleasantly dizzying 120 minutes of Broadway’s finest youngsters blowing your dance moves out of the water. But there’s more nuance at play here. “Miracle” introduces the not-so-childish irony running throughout this children’s play: the so-called miracle children, reveling in self-absorption, aren’t really all that miraculous after all, while a little girl eager to learn is ridiculed as an outsider by her family and peers alike.
Played on this particular night by 10 year-old Mimi Ryder with nary a hiccup – although in an endearing and altogether adorable moment after intermission Ryder did in fact get a case of the hiccups, a testament to her genuine talent that this preteen never broke character – Matilda is the child her parents never wanted. In fact, Mr. Wormwood (Rick Holmes) refers to his daughter as “boy,” attempting to deny her very existence while catering to her television-addled older brother Michael (Clay Thomson). The tango-dancing Mrs. Wormwood (Amy Spanger) completes the self-centered duo – she, along with her greasy car salesman of a husband, are the miracle children all grown up. Unfortunately for Matilda, middle-aged miracles aren’t all that miraculous after all.
The power of words isn’t only present in what Matilda says; this power follows her everywhere she goes. Suspended like curtains framing the stage and making their way into the eaves and balconies of the theater, block letters of all shapes, sizes and colors adorn “Matilda’s” set. (Words even appear like magic for those who search hard enough). Cleverly designed by Rob Howell with lighting by Hugh Vanstone, the pervasive use of letters never allows the audience to forget that this is a story about stories, told from the perspective of those most avid story-lovers themselves: children. But where words hold the most power for Matilda is in school, the place where she will not only learn the facts and figures that make the world go round, but also garners something vital about herself and those equally strange and wonderful creatures called people.
After much cajoling, Matilda’s parents finally relent and decide to send their daughter off to school. (In most cases the Wormwoods’ apparent apathy for education would be incentive enough to call up child protection services, but here it’s just another unfortunate side note in Matilda’s life – I didn’t say Broadway was realistic, people). For a kid who devoured War and Peace as a five year-old, school is a long sought-after but little realized dream. Alas, the school Matilda eagerly arrives at with books in hand is not so idyllic. Overseen by the cartoonishly top-heavy Miss Trunchbull (played to perfection by Christopher Sieber in hilarious and highly believable cross-dressing fashion), the school’s motto “Bambinatum est maggitum” (“Children are maggots”) speaks for itself.
The Trunchbull, as this former Olympic hammer-throw gold medalist is affectionately called, runs the show with an iron fist – no fun, no smiling, no laughing allowed. Threats of time in the “chokey,” a torture chamber filled with broken glass and rusty nails, await misbehaving children, and at one point little Amanda (GiaNina Paolantonio) is even thrown into the air like one of the Trunchbull’s shot-puts (a memorable moment of Broadway magic that sends her flying up into the ceiling and falling back to Earth intact, all without the slightest break in character).
But for children who march about in the strict monotony of gray uniforms and spend their days in desks, school turns out to be a pretty colorful affair. Miss Honey (played by the angelical Allison Case) is Matilda’s teacher, and in her classroom the Trunchbull is a distant memory. Reading and writing are key in the classroom, but so is learning to write your own story. And of course all this learning is done in the flashy, catchy, irresistible style of Broadway as the young cast dances on desks, become virtual acrobats in gym class and cheer on a fellow classmate as he attempts to eat an entire chocolate cake single-handedly (another sick form of punishment by the Trunchbull that blows up in her face). The brilliant choreography by Peter Darling (“Billy Elliot”) is nothing short of magical, and to their credit, these kids never seem to miss a beat.
The real magic happens though as Matilda and Miss Honey’s relationship begins to blossom – the young teacher realizing there is something special about this little girl, aside from the fact that she already knows her multiplication tables to perfection. It’s through this bond that Matilda finds who she’s truly meant to be, and magic strikes, literally. Let’s just say there’s more up this little girl’s sleeve than an encyclopedic knowledge of Tolstoy.
“Matilda the Musical” is inventive, fantastical and yes, magical, but really, that could be said of any Broadway production. These are the big leagues after all. But what makes “Matilda” is not the battle between children and rueful authority, the heartwarming teacher-student dynamic or even Mrs. Wormwood’s tango moves. What makes “Matilda” so hard to shake is that it’s simply about growing up – it’s about us. “When I grow up I’ll be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed to be a grown up,” the cast sings in “Matilda’s” most triumphant (and frankly, tear-jerking) number, “When I Grow Up.” We too, like Matilda, believed all the answers would be there for us one day; we only had to grow a little taller. The answers may never be so plain, but maybe, just maybe they will. It’s that hope, that magical, undying hope that makes “Matilda” a story worth telling – a story one little girl dares us all to write with a wink and a smile.