Fort Worth — Matilda is a lovely child. Her parents are icky and unloving. Matilda loves books and reading and quiet. Her family likes swindling people and watching “telly.” Matilda deserves a wonderful life—but it’s something she’ll have to get for herself.
If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out,
You don’t have to cry; you don’t have to shout.
‘Cause if you’re little, you can do a lot….
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.
There’s a reason why Roald Dahl’s books for young folks stay on top of the reading pile year after year. The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG: the British-born Dahl’s dark, hilarious, one-of-a-kind stories are bedrock reading, a dig into our deepest hopes and fears whether we’re nine or 90. Who hasn’t felt like a “little” person in the great big world?
Matilda the Musical, at Bass Performance Hall through June 18 as part of Performing Arts Fort Worth’s Broadway at the Bass series, is guaranteed to keep young fans on the edge of their seats—even if they know how the story comes out. A smash hit in London and New York (and winner of four Tonys), Matilda keeps the quirky core of Dahl’s much-loved book, but piles on new delights: clever songs, stomping kids, and over-the-top outrageousness from one of Dahl’s most dreadful villains. It’s Matilda v. Trunchbull all the way—and who knows what might happen?
Developed for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Matilda the Musical’s lively script is from British playwright Dennis Kelly, who plucks plenty of great dialogue directly from the book. And the songs are by Australian musician/comedian/actor Tim Minchin (Groundhog Day the Musical), who definitely has a way with the fast-moving, many-worded “patter song” (a specialty of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan).
Alas, if only the audience could have heard those clever songs better.
At least on the second night of the run, sound quality was a definite issue. Orchestra too loud for the singers? Don’t think so. Actors not singing the words clearly enough? Some of that—but leaning in and listening hard, it sounded as if the sizeable cast were articulating well on even the trickiest super-speed numbers. Yet there was a persistent and annoying aural fuzziness that kept the audience straining to hear both songs and spoken dialogue—and yes, I checked this impression with younger ears than mine. Best advice: if you aren’t familiar with the show, find Matilda’s song list on www.themusicallyrics.com —and read before you go.
Jaime MacLean, a pint-sized powerhouse, played Matilda for the performance reviewed. (The role rotates among three young actors: MacLean, Gabby Gutierrez and Jenna Weir.) Super-smart and fiercely determined to fix her life, this little girl is in control—you can tell it by the way she e-nunciates each word to make sure she’s heard (even through the sound issues). MacLean’s wild mop of hair is the only clue there’s a revolutionary inside, a resourceful little person who miht just turn her world inside out.
Pitted against Matilda is the headmistress of her school, Miss Agatha Trunchbull (tiny bun, massive bosom and awesome awfulness from Shakespearean actor Dan Chameroy), who calls students “maggots” and “gang-sta’s”—and makes life at Crunchem Hall a misery. England’s hammer-throwing champion long ago, Trunchbull is all muscle and no heart—and her school (as older students gleefully tell the incoming kindergarteners) is like a prison. She even has a dreaded cabinet (like the “cooler” in The Great Escape) called the “chokey” where students go for punishment.
With Trunchbull at school and her hopeless Mom, Dad and brother at home (Darcy Stewart, Matt Harrington and Darren Burkett are eye-rollingly funny), you’d wonder how Matilda can get up in the morning. But the little girl has her allies: a warm librarian (Keisha T. Fraser) who’s fascinated by the little girl’s stories of an exotic couple who long for a child. And there’s the beautiful Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles), a shy young teacher at Crunchem Hall—who notices right off that Matilda is smarter than smart, and nurtures her genius…even over “the Trunch’s” objections.
There’s classmate Lavender (a lively, take-charge Gabby Beredo), who instantly knows they should be best friends; Bruce (Soren Miller), who can eat a cake (it’s an inventive Trunchbull punishment) three time his size and survive; and Nigel (Blake Ferrante), who has a rocker soul under that gray school uniform. Even the suspiciously adult-looking older students come through when Matilda’s plans to bring Trunchbull down need their help.
This massive touring production is kept in line by director Matthew Warchus, and musical director Bill Congdon leads a crack orchestra despite the sound issues. Critic Ben Brantley once wrote that Matilda is “about [a little-girl reader] turning the alphabet into magic and using it to rule the world”—and Rob Howell’s set design is a maze of Scrabble-type letter tiles and shelves of library books. Look hard, and you’ll find hidden words: Child…Help…Escape…Heart…Phenomenon.
Even the smaller characters are memorable: Justin Packard as a kind doctor (and later a dream father Matilda imagines); Stephen Diaz as ballroom boy-toy Rudolpho, Matilda’s mother’s Latin (and very flexible) dance partner; Eric Craig as Russian mobster Sergei, chasing after Matilda’s con man Dad—but proving a gentleman in the end. And the young performers are just swell: there’s nothing quite like a bunch of “revolting” uniformed school kids dancing on top of their desks (choreography by Peter Darling) to get hearts racing in the young members of the audience. It’s Les Miz for kids—head for the barricades!
What’s going to happen? We’d bet 90 percent of the audience knows—but there’s always the chance Miss Trunchbull might win the day. We’re all in, waiting to see if Matilda can win against all odds. When she hurts, we feel it in our bones. When she plots a rebellion, we roar with laughter and approval. And if she triumphs, we’re going to stand and cheer.
Sometimes, you have to be a little bit naughty.