National Tour Theater Review: MATILDA THE MUSICAL (Oriental Theatre in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 25, 2016

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

MIND OVER MUSIC

Imagine Annie with psychokinetic powers, Nancy Drew as a mind-reader, or Cinderella acting as her own fairy godmother. Self-empowerment of the Mulan persuasion fuels this upbeat, knock-down, pell-mell 2011 musical. A multi-Tony and Olivier award winner, Matilda the Musical is now on its first national tour, a Broadway in Chicago presentation at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. The much motivated heroine of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel (and a 1996 film with Mara Wilson and Danny DeVito), Matilda Wormwood is a plucky British girl struck, almost literally, by the unfairness of the world. Like the Beast’s Belle, this tyke seeks shelter, sanity, and liberation in books. Her favorite hand-held device is a Dostoevsky novel.

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Because of Matilda’s anti-social independence of mind, the impressionable moppet is pilloried by her boorish parents and doofus brother. Demented dad is an unscrupulous used-car salesman who loves the “telly,” while mindless mom is a libidinous amateur ballerina whose blondness and stupidity must, you hope, be coincidental. Their bibliophile (whose sex the disappointed dad refuses to remember) is even more persecuted by the fascist headmistress Miss Trunchbull. A former Olympic hammer thrower, this hellish matron has her own Guantanamo torture chamber. (Played by a man, the hulking authoritarian, a combination of Miss Hannigan and a linebacker, clearly took steroids.)  As much as Heathers: The Musical or the 2016 presidential campaign, bullying rears its ugly head in this Dickensian celebration of underdog redemption.

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But Matilda has an ally for every nemesis: Besides her rebellious schoolmate victims (“Naughty” never sounded so nice), Matilda can count on the supportive, impoverished, and much wronged grade-school teacher Miss Honey and the sympathetic librarian Mrs. Phelps, a rapt listener. And then there’s the fact that our grotesquely undervalued little girl has a more than precocious ability to move objects (conditionally, only while fighting villains) and to create stories that magically mimic—and mend—the lives of those around 5-year-old Matilda. (Compared to the film, this X-girl’s telekinesis is minimized here, maybe to keep Matilda more human and less freakish.)

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These are potent ingredients for Dennis Kelly’s supple book and Australian composer Tim Minchkin’s clever music and lyrics. They transform Dahl’s wishful parable into a Billy Elliot-like saga of very sung heroism, invigorated by the powerful payback of unfettered imagination. It’s wonderfully shape-shifted by Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus, embellished with pop-up scenic illustrations by Rob Howell, and pile-driven home by Peter Darling’s aggressive choreography. (The breakout dances are reminiscent of the pugilistic moves in Oliver, Newsies or Annie. Innocence, it seems, means weakness, so numbers like “When I Grow Up” or “Revolting Children” explode with angry aggression.)

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With giant letterblocks suggesting everything from castle walls to dungeon classrooms, Matilda the Musical is a kind of cold romp. It works best as it wittily skewers the idiotic Wormwood parents and Trunchbull, a Trump-like tyrant almost too evil to be real as she calls children “maggots” and worse. (She can turn physical-education exercises into propagandistic brainwashing, knowing that “You have to stay inside the circle all the time.”)

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No subtlety is wasted on this story. It swings on a polarity as black-and-white and vice-versus -virtue as anything Harry Potter (a blatant Matilda spinoff) would later confront at Hogswart. But, given the stylized exaggeration of Warchus’s manic staging, realism would only break the spell. Happily, there’s a daughterlode of emotional honesty and incandescent realism in Lily Brooks O’Briant’s mercurial Matilda. (She alternates the killer role with Sarah McKinley Austin and Savannah Grace Elmer). Among the nasty grownups, Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfield are cartoon-thin as Matilda’s imbecilic progenitors. David Abeles incarnates every bogeyman under the bed as the mannish monstrosity Trunchbull, a principal without principle who’s repeatedly detonated by “The Smell of Rebellion.”

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In cunning contrast, Jennifer Blood sings like a saint (“This Little Girl,” “My House) as she becomes the mother Matilda deserves, while Chicago favorite Ora Jones is yet another maternal marvel as Mrs. Phelps, another life-affirming booklover. Among the rug rats, Ryan Christopher Dever has fun as a large lad who eats an entire cake just to spite the terrible Trunchbull. (The children, some not that young, are “miracles,” as they calmly describe themselves in the opening number.) In the musical’s subplot, where Matilda spins a tale that mirrors present misfortune, Justin Packard and Ashley Elizabeth Hale play pivotal, pseudo-parental roles as the dream-like Escape Artist and Acrobat.

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A problem plagues this production: Heavy going as the British accents are, they’re not helped by underachieving miking. To appreciate the turns of thought and play of words in Minchin’s songs, you could read the lyrics beforehand, wishing the musical were as Americanized as the movie. The gift of decipherability should be up there with teleportation.

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photos by Joan Marcus

Matilda the Musical
Royal Shakespeare Company and The Dodgers
presented by Broadway in Chicago
at the Oriental Theatre until April 10, 2016
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit Broadway in Chicago
U.S. tour continues through Februry 12, 2017
for tour info, visit Matilda The Musical

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