By: Isa Goldberg
I really like this story. Matilda," in a nutshell, is the tale of an everygirl who proves herself to be a genius, capable of discovering her own miraculous solutions. Based on Roald Dahl’s children’s stories, the British musical with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, evokes the gruesome horrors of a child who is stuck with mean cruel parents. It brings to mind Martin McDonagh’s fairy tale inspired drama "The Pillowman."
While not so entirely dark as that, "Matilda," too, has its haunted spaces.
There is her home for one, and also her public school, the onomatopoeic, Crunchem Hall, where the most brutal of headmistresses reigns. Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull is the most imposing cross dresser to venture to Broadway from foreign shores since Dame Edna. Where once a dear old lady with enormous glittery glasses called us "possums" now we’re spoken to like maggots – Trunchbull’s unendearing name for her students. (By the way, the two actors would pair off brilliantly as the leads in "Wicked.")
With his gnarled hands, enormous bosom, hairy legs and a voice that sounds like he could, indeed, be the Wicked Witch of the East, Carvel makes for an awesome presence. As does Gabriel Ebert as Matilda’s hateful dad, Mr. Wormwood, a swarmy used car salesman who refers to his daughter as a "stink worm." He also tears up her books and throws her into her bedroom for an endless stint of "time out." Ebert with his rubbery legs, brings a sense of musical hall entertainment to the role of the boastful, loud miscreant. It’s a colorful role, highlighted by his bright green hair and a screaming plaid suit. All that thanks to designer Rob Howell whose sets are a menagerie of boxes that transform from gifts to books to building blocks… the simple essentials of a child’s world.
Ebert’s counterpart, Lesli Margherita, plays Mrs. Wormwood, a narcissistic self-involved mother who also hates her daughter. Their son, played by Taylor Trensch, is a boorish young man on whom they lovingly shower attention. Of course, it’s all in keeping with the family philosophy articulated in the second act ditty, "All I know I learned from telly." As mom assures Matilda, "You seem to think that people like people what are clever, it’s very quaint, it’s very sweet, but wrong."
In spite of it all, Matilda, played by Oona Laurence the night I saw the show, is a lithesome, soulful little girl who tells clairvoyant stories and dreams of miracles. Her classmates, equally huggable young actors, prove that there is a bright future for child chorines.
As choreographed by Peter Darling, the kids at Crunchem evolve from life behind its walls in the show’s early scenes (resembling the inmates in "Marat/Sade"), to their eventual rebellion. At last we arrive at what looks like an adolescent version of "Spring Awakening." But as described by Trunchbull their spiritual resurrection takes on a certain stink, "The whiff of insurgence! The stench of intent! The reek of pre-pubescent protest! The funk of defiance! The odour of coup!" she sings.
Finally, it’s the schoolteacher, Miss Honey, played by Lauren Ward, who aided by her deceased father, a mysterious Escapologist (Ben Thompson), rescues Matilda. In the end, the two somersault into a sunset free of child abuse. As the heroine with the velvet voice Ward is a delicate treasure.
In addition to its clev
er narrative with interweaving plots and subplots, Tim Minchin’s zesty music and refreshing lyrics, give life to the little girl whose story telling is revelatory and for whom miracles come true. "Matilda" is by far more rosy than tragic, and just as sweet as it is sentimental.
"Matilda" is at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street. For tickets call 212-239-6200, visit www.telecharge.com or go to the box office.