|Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa and Oona Laurence
who share the title role in Matilda The Musical on Broadway(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Halfway into the second act at the first performance after opening night, the new musical Matilda came to a complete halt and the stage manager announced that they were experiencing technical difficulties. Fifteen minutes later, the show started up again and, lo and behold, the evening took on a new tenor. The pace of the show slowed down, the decibel level lightened, storylines began to crystallize, a few moments of sincere emotion seeped in, and the show ended on a high. You couldn’t help but leave the theater with a smile on your face. Would the last twenty minutes or so have felt the same if the break, which actually came as a welcome relief, had not occurred? Up to that point, the show felt like an assault on one’s sensibilities. Too many of the performers were shouting their lines, the characters were mostly revealed to be one-dimensional, and the performances were totally one-note. To make matters worse, the little girl portraying Matilda that particular evening–there are four girls alternating in the title role of the precocious five year old–could not be understood. Her attempt to use a British accent only heightened the problem. The same could be said for all of the children in the show. Unfortunately, one’s experience of the show is definitely diminished by straining to hear and understand what is being said and sung. Is this the highly anticipated show of the season from London?
Matilda The Musical began life at Stafford-upon-Avon in November of 2010 where it was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The playwright Dennis Kelly was hired to write the book and the British born Australian comedian and musician Tim Minchin was brought on as the composer and lyricist. Its success at Stratford was followed by a transfer to the West End a year later and it has taken on blockbuster status since then. In addition to becoming a sellout hit in the West End, the show went on to win numerous theater awards including the Olivier for Best New Musical, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Direction and Best Choreography. Best actor Bertie Carvel, director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling all repeat their roles for the Broadway production. However, whether it proves to be as big a hit on Broadway as it is in London will remain to be seen. This show will certainly not be to everybody’s liking.
|Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
It is based on the beloved children’s book by British author Roald Dahl, also known for writing James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In 1978, an Americanized version of Matilda came out as a movie directed by and co-starring Danny DeVito and his then wife Rhea Perlman. The role of Matilda was played by Mara Wilson. The creative team and producers behind the Broadway version of Matilda chose to remain faithful to the English version of the story and therein may lie some of the problem in transferring the successful West End version directly to New York.
Matilda is the story of a very bright, five year old girl who takes refuge in reading books from the library at a very early age. She gets through several books a week and entertains the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, with wonderful tales. Unwanted by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, and older brother Michael, Matilda is sent to a school run by a scary headmistress Miss Trunchbull who is unusually cruel to children and enforces her own rules, sometimes in a sadistic manner. Fortunately, Matilda has a teacher, Miss Honey, who takes a strong interest in her. Later, Matilda learns that Miss Honey has been wronged by Miss Trunchbull and, having gained otherworldly powers, stands up to the wicked headmistress and brings justice for her beloved teacher. Matilda uses her special powers to correct the wrongs and bring order to her school and home life. She has the spunk and drive of Little Orphan Annie and the telekinetic powers of Steven King’s Carrie.
As a revival of Annie opened on Broadway earlier this season, albeit ill-conceived, it is not hard to draw comparisons between the two shows. Both shows revolve around an indomitable young girl who stands up to those trying to force them into acquiescence. Annie outwits Miss Hannigan, the hard-on-her-luck, alcoholic, bad caretaker of the orphanage where Annie resides; and Matilda gets the better of Miss Trunchbull, the miserable and frightening headmistress of the school that she has been forced to attend by her parents who wanted her disciplined. In spite of her foibles, Miss Hannigan comes off as a delightfully evil, lovable character. Miss Trunchbull, on the other hand, is downright odd, revolting and surreal, especially as depicted by the actor Bertie Carvel, with no attempt made to feminize his over-the-top characterization. It’s hard to know what to make of this strange caricature. Both Annie and Matilda have others in whom to take solace. Annie has Grace and Daddy Warbucks, and Matilda has Mrs. Phelps and Miss Honey. Whereas Annie is an orphan, Matilda has parents, but they don’t want her. Annie is a cartoon come to charming stage life and Matilda is a bad dream, exaggerated way beyond any child’s worst nightmare.
Still, there is so much to admire about Matilda: from the look and design of the show—an inspired set covered in large scrabble tiles and bookcases; to a mélange of costumes—designs from the simple to the outrageous; to the lighting–from atmospheric lights to effects involving lasers; to the sound–with speakers located all over the theater creating a surround sound. As the director, Matthew Warchus has done a brilliant job coordinating all of these design elements but he is less effective at bringing an emotionally involving story to the stage. The imaginative choreography by the great choreographer Peter Darling, has created a style worlds away from his wonderfully theatrical and classical work on Billy Elliot: The Musical, this time incorporating hip hop and popping moves to steps steeped in the contemporary genre. These motions are handled surprisingly well by a cast of very young actors, ages 6 to 14. Unfortunately, the music is only serviceable with just two or three catchy numbers for the children, and the book suffers from its lack of heart.
The show apparently continues to have some technical difficulties on some nights and if you happen to be there on a night when they do, see it as a positive. It may actually help one appreciate the whole experience.
Matilda The Musical (through January 1, 2017)
Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com