Broadway Theater Review: MATILDA THE MUSICAL (Shubert Theatre)

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by Cris Franco on June 17, 2013

in Theater-New York

UNDER THE SPELL OF MATILDA

Just as author Roald Dahl’s child-heroine “Matilda” is a magical mix of unexpected brilliance, youthful exuberance and solid common sense — so is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new musical adaptation, Matilda the Musical.

Employing the familiar storyline of the discarded child on a quest to find a home and family (Annie, Oliver!, The Wiz, The Secret Garden) this West End import bursts with unexpected brilliance as it transforms what might have become standard musical fare into a phantasmagorical trip into a Tim Burton-esque world.  A world where the put-upon, yet indomitable, five-year-old Matilda asks herself (and the audience) one profound question:  If someone’s life is bad, why don’t people just “change their story?”

Stage and Cinema's review of MATILDA THE MUSICAL on Broadway.Fortunately, the inspired creators behind Matilda (director Matthew Warchus and Tony Award-winning book writer Dennis Kelly) didn’t change Dahl’s story and allowed her powerfully simple philosophy to propel Matilda into her Gothic-meet-gumballs, fun-house collision with the adult establishment that makes up her oppressed topsy-turvy world.  Heading her cadre of nemeses is her school’s headmistress, “Miss Trunchbull” (played in dowdyish drag by Bertie Carvel) who considers all children “maggots.”  Further fueling Madilda’s quest to “change her story” are her anti-reading, anti-thinking, and anti-Matilda parents: her deliciously vane ballroom dancing mother (played by the comically gifted Lesli Margherita) and her bombastically boorish father (played by Tony Award-winner for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, Gabriel Ebert).  In fact, it seems that the only adult in her world who senses Matilda’s inner-spark is her downtrodden teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) who, like Matilda, suffered at the hands of an abusive parent, but hasn’t been able to change her story — yet.

Stage and Cinema's review of MATILDA THE MUSICAL on Broadway.Like a diminutive Don Quixote, armed with only her arsenal of books, Matilda enrolls a good-hearted librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge) into her battle with life’s army of hypocrites and fools.  And this librarian provides Matilda with her weapons of choice: The world’s greatest literature which is filled with ideals and expressed in sentences that are comprised of words that are nothing but a series of seemingly small and insignificant letters of the alphabet.  The play’s non-stop theme of “knowledge is power” is brilliantly and blazingly introduced upon entering the Shubert Theater where the proscenium and set (designed by Tony Award-winner Rob Howell) is an explosion of Scrabble-like letters on wooden tiles that appear to be random until one searches and finds hidden within the chaos no less than 38 words of empowerment, including: “read” and “revolution.”

Stage and Cinema's review of MATILDA THE MUSICAL on Broadway.And revolution is what you get when you see Matilda.  Revolutionary choreography by Peter Darling reminiscent of a pre-pubescent Spring Awakening, revolutionary lighting by Tony Award winner Hugh Vanstone that moves the stage in and out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of enlightenment, and revolutionary new songs by British composer and comedian, Tim Michin, who underscores Matilda’s journey with brash and bouncy songs such as “Naughty,” Matilda’s ah-ha! moment, when she is called to arms, “Telly,” a British music hall number sung by Matilda’s father proponing the virtues of television, “When I Grow Up,” the child’s anthem of the universal dream of one day owning your life, and “Revolting Children,” the show’s finale where society’s underdogs finally are freed from adult oppression.  While the competition is far from fierce, this is the season’s best theatrical score, bar none.

Stage and Cinema's review of MATILDA THE MUSICAL on Broadway.Played by a rotating quartet of young actresses (Milly Shapiro donned the title role with great style and aplomb on the night these reviewers attended), Matilda slowly unravels the mystery surrounding what gives her headmistress her omnipotent power over everything and everyone at her school.  And once the truth is known, the Wagnerian Miss Truchbull’s hold over her student “maggots” is broken and the uniform clad youngsters are set free to express themselves and fulfill their potential.  Matilda, too, is free to find that home for which she’s been searching, where ignorance isn’t bliss and our beautiful, limitless minds are allowed to grow and dream unfettered by man’s mob mentality.

Young audiences will revel over the cast’s energy, the dazzling visual effects and pumped-up musical arrangements, while older attendees will recognize the tale’s important message about becoming the hero of our own story.  Just like the drama’s heroine, Matilda is extraordinary, magical and worthy of special attention.

Stage and Cinema's review of MATILDA THE MUSICAL on Broadway.

photos by Joan Marcus

Matilda the Musical
Shubert Theatre
open run
for tickets, visit http://us.matildathemusical.com/

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