Dallas — Matilda the Musical begins with a sardonic swipe. Subversive musical wordsmith Tim Minchin sets the tone and table for this facetious feast with “Miracle.” Though the Winspear Opera House seemed to gobble up all the words first, director Matthew Warchus’ progressive birthday party staging, accented by Peter Darling’s fresh choreography of parents’ self-obsessed family selfies, paint a pretty clear picture: a “Miracle” every child is not.
Except when they are.
Such is the challenge of this slippery story. From the beloved mind that brought you the equally twisted tale of Willie Wonka, Roald Dahl’s title character is an underdog daughter even though she’s gifted with supernatural powers. In writing the book of this musical version of the book by Dahl, Dennis Kelly has carefully kept the target moving. Just when the opening has firmly established the dangers of over-doting, we’re introduced to the least caring parents on earth: the Wormwoods. She’s (Cassie Silva) dismayed to discover that she’s pregnant because it’ll get in the way of her ballroom dancing final. He’s (Quinn Mattfeld) dismayed not to discover the baby’s “thingy” between its legs. In other words, he expected a boy.
It’s a girl.
Just as soon as she’s earned our free pass for affection, Matilda busts out her solo “Naughty” in which she switches her mother’s peroxide with her father’s hair tonic. Not that they don’t deserve it, but the creators know that Dahl’s tone is best when kept topsy-turvy. Perhaps part of his appeal to adults and children, particularly, is his adherence to laws that defy logic. Nowhere is that more exemplified than at school with its joyless pursuit of mechanical knowledge mastery.
Designer Rob Howell won a Tony Award for his letter block set design that can convey at times an impenetrable cage wall or a playful, creative castle. Lighting designer Hugh Vanstone was similarly honored for his contributions to the fleetly flexible environment. One perfect example of the creators’ collaboration comes when a chorus of older students climbs on the school gates in menacing choreography, warning the first-year kids who tremble outside. As the piece builds, they punctuate their song by filling the gaps in the gates alphabetically with glowing letter blocks, perfectly mixing the flavors of imprisonment with the Matilda’s means of escape: words.
School’s extremes are personified by the loving teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), and the sadistic administrator, Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness). Designer Howell, who also designed the set, continues his flair for fun in the trench-coated Trunchbull. Where Miss Honey is all sweet and soft, the cross-dressed headmistress is stiff and structured. Ryness won the night with the patient application of comic business. After so much of the show galloped by his telegraphed bits were a welcome steadying force. Only the Wormwoods, Ms. Silva and Mr. Matfeld, came close to his comic clarity.
Matilda finds escape in the library where she makes up stories for the librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones). Her current story concerns a pair of famous circus performers The Escape Artist (Justin Packard) and The Acrobat (Wesley Faucher). As the evening progresses to more dire circumstances at school, the story reaches equally cliffhanging tension. The two performers discover they are pregnant, finally, at the moment they are about to perform their most dangerous stunt. Suddenly, their death defying stunts have even greater stakes.
The show, which opens AT&T Performing Arts Center's 2015-16 Broadway Series, resolves in a conflation of the fables that shouldn’t be spoiled. The showmanship is fantastical, employing shadow puppetry, magic, song and dance. In keeping with Dahl’s double dipping, the ending isn’t plainly happy. The loose ends, though wrapped up aren’t lost completely. There’s a significant moment between Mr. Wormwood and Matilda that wasn’t lost on my ten year old. Though it’s a solidly satisfying ending, there’ll be plenty to talk about with the kids about in the car on the way home.
The trouble is you may not be able to answer all of their questions.
Sound at the Winspear is proving to be a heel Achilles wouldn’t envy. Strangely, a hall with sensitive acoustics designed primarily for opera makes for an uncomfortable home for touring shows built for reinforcement. Ms. Jenness played the title role for this review but much of her performance was lost to a 50/50 combination of diction and acoustics. It’s such a huge role that she rotates with two other performers. Assumedly they will attack it with as much energy and charisma as she did, but until the sound is addressed, only half of the scenario is under their control.
Just because it’s a show about kids overcoming unfair obstacles doesn’t mean they should have to as well.