Review: Matilda

Matilda Sam S. Shubert Theatre

I was always a bit of a know-it-all girl growing up – Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger come to mind. So it’s hardly surprising that I got a kick out of a musical about the biggest know-it-all girl of all time, Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

Based on Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel, Matilda the Musical follows the titular girl who – in spite of rotten parents and a vicious head mistress – is determined to make sure her life story is an amazing one. At its core is a story of profound friendship between a very smart young girl and an appreciative teacher, something I couldn’t help but find quite touching.

The best things about Matilda are Dahl’s sly yet moving story, Matthew Warchus’s inventive and vivacious direction, and a cast who looks like they are truly having the time of their lives. Peter Minchin’s lively, eclectic score definitely has plenty of charm, but is marred by muddy choral arranging and a tendency toward flogging ideas, both lyrical and musical, a little too long.

That’s quibbling, however, with a show that is as smart as it is giddily entertaining (while it doesn’t quite deserve the hyperbolic hype it’s been getting). Four actresses rotate in the title role, and the one I saw, Oona Lawrence, had a goth girl glower that worked marvelously for the part. The teacher Miss Honey is the show’s heart, and Lauren Ward plays her with an aching vulnerability that almost hurts (in a good way).

Bertie Carvel has the musical’s showiest role, the evil head mistress Agatha Trunchbull, and he makes a full meal of it, marrying a snippish high voice to seething passions that teeter wildly on the edge of insanity. His costume is like something out of a British panto on steroids, and his physical performance – equal parts Maggie Smith precision and Jennifer Saunders slapstick – fills out to match it. Truly riveting.

And the kids! This chorus of children absolutely kill Peter Darling’s devilishly complex choreography, and many of them have substantial acting parts, which they deliver with great commitment and elan.

This may not be the messiah of Broadway that many reviews claim, but it is at least as fun as a barrel of brain-damaged English monkeys (which reminds me: Gabriel Ebert, who plays Matilda monkey’s ass of a father, also delivers a standout, very amusing, performance). Not the Second Coming, but decidedly entertaining.

For tickets, click here.

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