All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Being the main character in a Roald Dahl story, Matilda is a child beset with problems that threaten her peace, safety, and self-esteem. As opposed to the orphans that populate most of Dahl’s books, Matilda is not neglected or mistreated by horrid relatives who turn her into a drudge or waif or neglect her altogether. Matilda lives with her parents who, plain out, resent her, regret her being born, and taunt her for traits most parents would treasure, a love for reading, a vividly creative imagination, and precociousness that allows her to speak several foreign language before she reaches age 6.
Also unlike most of Dahl’s oppressed or ill-used kids, Matilda has resources that give her confidence and self-possession beyond that of most children. Matilda is aware of her intellectual gifts and the scholarly use she makes of them. She has no compunctions about using her wit and aptitude for devilry to eke revenge on adults who cross her. She is also telekinetic and has the power to make inanimate objects move by mental concentration. This is a moppet who can take care of herself.
So, if Matilda is not easily wounded, suffers more exasperation than hurt at her parents’ dismissal of her, and doesn’t mind causing damaging havoc of her own, why is she sympathetic, and where does the drama derive from in her story?
It comes from Matilda being able to discern situations clearly and to lead others to independence from noxious Gorgons, bullies, fools, and vain, self-absorbed ninnies in her midst. She has to vanquish and destroy the cruel, inconsiderate, sadistic, and moronic elements who can poison the lives of children. The musical, “Matilda,” by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, based on Dahl’s book, chronicles the course Matilda takes and the obstacles she faces in defeating her foes and securing an idyllic childhood, the outcome of all Dahl stories. Though it can be precious in spots and go on a little too long in others, “Matilda,” thanks to its director, Matthew Warchus, and choreographer, Peter Darling is endowed with thoughtful theatrical creativity that would please its title character. “Matilda” sprawls though the dark, bizarre, hazard-ridden world Dahl created, with Kelly and Minchin capturing the originator’s caustic tone and jaundiced attitude towards most human lives. It can be appetizingly satirical at some points and self-consciously cartoonish and overly proud of its effect or wit in others. All in all, the musical entertains because Dahl’s world is so interesting and because Matilda, played wonderfully on tour by Mabel Tyler, wins you quickly to her side with mature poise, articulate understanding of all she faces, and obvious revelry in mischief.
“Matilda” includes naughty fun for kids, such as Matilda concocting a mixture of her parent’s hair products that turns her father’s beloved wavy auburn locks green and lifeless or another character putting a live newt in a pitcher of water intended for her school’s headmistress, and elements for adults to savor, e.g. making fun of children with irritating habits that remained unredeemed by talents like Matilda’s.
Unfortunately, one of those irritating habits in this touring production is kids singing in buzzlike adenoidal voices that have no musical tone and, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, are overamplified to the point of rendering the children unintelligible, particularly when they sing en masse.
It’s an ongoing problem today that sound designers, for reasons only they can know, call for amplification to be overly loud or, to use the show biz terms, “too hot.” Engineers controlling the sound are merely following ill-advised directions but have neither the authority nor the gumption to adjust levels to suit a theater’s acoustic reality. The result is words are miked out of existence. This dilemma is especially prevalent at the Academy to Music where any child or soprano may be well be humming considering no word they utter will be understood and all orchestras sound canned or tinny. In the case of “Matilda,” that leaves you with unpleasant, unmusical tone of children and none of Minchin’s clever lyrics to compensate for the dreadful cacophony.
Really, the children in “Matilda” sound like one big adenoid ready to burst in allergic agitation.
Aside from the sound, the touring version of “Matilda” moves well, entertains enough to uphold the show’s London and Broadway reputations, and is, at times, too cute because it is programmed to be/
One thing I noticed is a softening of some “Matilda’s” elements from London to New York to the road. In the original Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Matilda,” the villain, Miss Trunchbull was palpably frightening. Her thunderous footfall did not cause comic terror but actual terror. Trunchbull radiated uncompromising meanness and a genuine desire for punishing children in a contraption she calls “chokey,” the coionial Indian’s word for a British jail. Everything about Trunchbull, and “Matilda” in general was more menacing, more in the Dahl mode of making you cringe at the prospect of how children in Trunchbull’s care could be mutilated or scarred for life. Matilda’s parents were also more crass, if that’s possible, and sinister. Their behavior towards Matilda went beyond disdain and neglect to levels that seems more threatening and injurious. You had the impression the parents, the Wormwoods, despised her daughter as much as they misunderstood or ignored her. There was real friction when Mr. Wormwood drags Matilda to her room and locks her in.
On Broadway, some of this tension was relaxed The Wormwoods, in particular, became more jokes than menaces. They had more to fear from Matilda’s ingenuity than she had from their benignity. Bertie Carvel’s Trunchbull was still fierce and intimidating but lost some edge of danger that made you anxious about whether Trunchbull would prevail.
These alterations didn’t harm “Matilda” as much as make it different and easier in some ways to take.
The touring production lowers the stakes another notch. It presents both the Wormwoods and Trunchbull as essentially comic. Bryce Ryness is excellent as the no-nonsense headmistress, but even at his first entrance, he promotes more laughs than shudders. The Wormwoods are total jokes, good jokes because they are such grasping bottom-feeders, but without the slightest tinge that Matilda is in any bodily or psychological jeopardy because of them.
It would be interesting to see in the London production maintains its 2012 level of intensity or if it, and the Broadway staging, have also had their overall tension reduced.
It could also be that my familiarity with “Matilda” warps my perception and that the softening I sense is more the result of seeing a show for the third time and knowing what is coming.
Either way, the tour of “Matilda” entertains and offer larger-than-life figures that comment on some of today’s foibles, such as regarding children as if they’re hothouse flowers or becoming hypnotized by the television, while telling a unique story about a little girl who uses her impressive gifts to take on and extract herself from an absurd world.
Kelly and Minchin begin their satire right away. “Matilda” opens at a birthday party. Before any action begins, you notice Rob Howell’s giddily witty set composed of pastel books precariously stacked upon each other to make arches and surfaces, blocks with letters spelling “Matilda” and other words interspersed between them.
A table laden with food and decorated at the corners with balloons that look simultaneously shiny and faded comes forward, and an obviously spoiled, fairly obnoxious kid raises his head to announce, “My mommy says I’m a miracle.”
Incisive wit is afoot as subsequent children boast their parents says they’re the sweetest, the greatest, the most talented, the super-precious, name your superlative. “Matilda” offers a lampooning parade of today’s trophy children who can do no wrong, make no mistakes, brook no criticism, and earn a prize for everything they do, the darlings.
Then Matilda enters. She is not at school or at the party. She is in her snug British home where are parents are calling nasty, dirty, ugly, and useless along with insults only they consider crushing — reader and thinker. Mr. Wormwood also keeps calling Matilda “boy,” to which she always retorts, “I’m a girl.”
Dahl, Kelly, Minchin, Warchus, and, possibly, tour directors Thomas Caruso and Ryan Emmons, do not leave you guessing about why the Wormwoods degrade and disparage their daughter. You see the moment of Matilda’s birth, a surprise to Mrs. Wormwood who wonders how she became so fat considering all of the exercise she gets rehearsing and performing ballroom dances, among other activities, with her partner, Rudolpho. Matilda’s mother is immediately disturbed because her delivery will cause her to miss a major ballroom competition. Mr. Wormwood expresses immediate dismay at learning Matilda is a girl. He wanted a second son. Hence, he constantly refers to Matilda as if she was a boy.
Matilda is only slightly daunted by her callous mistreatment. She has resources to overcome such ignorance. The only sign of sensitivity she shows to it is lying about the pride her parents must have in her when complimented by positive forces such as the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, and her teacher at Crunchem Academy, Miss Honey. “Oh, yes,” Matilda says when one of them took about the treasure her mother and father must find her.
Kelly and Minchin get a lot of mileage from the Wormwood family. Harry Wormwood is a swindling con artist who depends on his flowing locks of hair to create the image he needs to bamboozle the unsuspecting. He thinks reading is the bane of the society and wonders why everyone, particularly his boy daughter, doesn’t know the overarching value of the “telly.” Zinnia Wormwood is the personification of vanity and lives only to dance, have sex, and wear colorful clothes that contrast mightily with Matilda’s dull gray school uniform and tousled hair. The Wormwood son comes across as profoundly retarded, sitting as he does watching telly all day and repeating random words he hears from the screen or from his father. The Wormwoods are beyond dysfunctional. They’re random machines to indulge in total selfishness and practice the minimum except when Harry is out extorting piles of money.
Matilda’s environment at Crunchem is not much better. The children are all spoiled brats, although they are generally accepting of Matilda. The headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull, is a former Olympic medal winner in the hammer throw competition and uses her ample strength and competitive zeal to discipline her juvenile charges. Miss Trunchbull, who wears olive drab khaki military-looking clothes and has breasts and buttocks the size of prize-winning gourds, is an aficionado of physical training and of children obeying with total and absolute submission at the expense of their worthless personalities. She is contrasted by Jennifer Honey, a wonderful teacher who recognizes and encourages Matilda to use her gifts, talents Miss Trunchbull despises because they are intellect and set Matilda aside from the pack she prefers to create. Matilda also gets positive reinforcement from a librarian, Mrs. Phelps, who relishes hearing the latest installment from a story Matilda composes about a Houdini-level escape artist and his wife, an aerial acrobat.
This story will pay tieback dividends towards the conclusion of “Matilda.”
A little bit of fun and gimmickry goes a long way. Perhaps one problem with the musical “Matilda” is everything is satiric, and we may have too much of a good thing, so much that it becomes old hat or tiring in spots.
In general, Warchus’s, or Caruso and Emmons’s, inventiveness as a director carries the day. As does Dahl. There’s such originality in the way Matilda’s story unfolds as literature and as musical theater, the overall feeling is one of seeing something interesting, entertaining, and, dare I say it, great.
Mabel Tyler is a splendid Matilda. The young actress shows all the poise, savoir faire, and sangfroid of a precocious moppet who primarily wants justice in her home, in her school, and in the wider world.
Tyler has no problem being understood when she speaks or sings. Indomitable and vulnerable at the same time, she uses her cuteness to make her intellect adorable and her sabotaging mischief conspiratorially laudable.
Tyler is a gifted actress who reads her lines with purpose and not by rote. She is much less self-conscious or showy that many of her juvenile castmates in the chorus. There’s no mugging or getting by only on cuteness from Tyler. She’s a Matilda who commands respect and wins you to her side from the minute she reveals her parents think she’s useless.
Quinn Mattfeld is hilarious as Harry Wormwood. Though he plays his character straight in terms of declaring his intent and carrying it out in an inimitable way, Mattfeld has to incorporate Harry’s purpose into the outlandishly physical from Warchus’s direction prescribes. It allows Mattfeld to be comic and vaudevillian at the same time he is being slimy and reptilian. The actor makes you despise Mr. Wormwood, his dishonest intentions, and his constant denigration of Matilda while laughing as his vanity, cocksure pride, and overall clumsiness.
Bryce Ryness received built-in attention as Trunchbull. The military garb into which Rob Howell stuffs Trunchbull’s ample boobs and butt is a comic entity unto itself. Ryness wears the outfit well and uses it to underscore Trunchbull’s disdainful strictness with children and her threat of chokey, which is gibbet-like cage in which a person has to sit perfectly still to prevent being impaled on sharp spikes that protrude from the floor and side walls.
Ryness relishes being a villain and never gives a quarter in terms of showing weakness or kindness. My favorite moment in his performance is a light one in which, Trunchbull, conducting a gym class that involves jumping on a springed platform to vault over a pummel horse (sans pummels in this case0, takes her own leap in which Ryness dexterously soars past the horse in a straight line, chin up and arms out as if Trunchbull is flying. Ryness does the feat with natural aplomb and makes Miss Trunchbull’s leap a comic delight.
Cassie Silva exudes narcissism as Zinnia Wormwood. She practically caresses herself as she prances in some Latin step through the Wormwood, blithely ignoring everything but her own agenda at the time.
Jennifer Blood, as Miss Honey, is the strongest in this touring cast. She is not content to play her role as a caricature or type. She gives depth and dimension to Miss Honey by showing heroism that makes her a teammate of Matilda’s instead of a mere beneficiary of the child’s plot to make things right in her world.
I loved Jaquez Andre Sims’s casually vain sexuality as Rudolpho. Ora Jones expresses needed warmth and childlike curiosity as the librarian engrossed by Matilda’s story about the escape artist and the aerialist. Danny Tieger was properly oafish and addled as Matilda’s brother, Michael.
The music in Matilda is 21st century standard, more muscular and rhythmic than hummable or melodic. Tim Minchin does better with his lyrics which, when intelligible, are quite clever and cutting. Dennis Kelly’s book is mostly true to Dahl’s story and finds the right high points to depict. Rob Howell’s set is a star, and his costumes show his humor, especially the uniform for Miss Trunchbull, the overdone skirts and accessories for Mrs. Wormwood, and the demure pink frock for Miss Honey.
“Matilda,” a national tour from the Royal Shakespeare Company, runs through Sunday, November 29, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee on Friday, Nov. 27 is scheduled in lieu of a Thanksgiving performance. Tickets range from $115 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org.