Roald Dahl never shied away from the darker aspects of life, even in his many books for children. From "The Witches" and "The BFG" to "George's Marvellous Medicine," truly terrible things happen to the young protagonists of his stories; his books provide a very real sense of danger that most entertainment for children seems to shy away from. Despite their propensity toward the grotesque, these stories never feel bleak or grim -- quite the opposite, in fact. This comes from the pitch black sense of humor that runs across all of Dahl's work, but also because the author so clearly admires and respects children (at least those with a sense of imagination).
Dahl's mischievous, exuberant spirit is alive and well in "Matilda: The Musical," now onstage at the Auditorium Theatre through Sunday, April 17.
Dahl's novel was adapted by Dennis Kelly, and "Matilda" was originally staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, when the production won a record seven Olivier Awards in 2012. A year later, the show opened on Broadway where it collected a host of Tony Awards, though it lost to "Kinky Boots" for Best Musical.
British comedian Tim Minchin's catchy, lyrically verbose score has a razor sharp sense of humor that gives the songs some real bite, suiting the material to a T. "Matilda" kicks off with "Miracle," a rather daring musical number reminding us that many children are pretty terrible (and that's often the fault of the parents). As a group of clueless parents sing the praises of their special, precious children, the kids demonstrate what rotten brats they are, giving us shades of the spoiled tykes seen in Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
A witty and subversive tribute to the power that words and stories to give to fight against the tyrannies of life, the story revolves around the precocious Matilda Wormwood, played on the night I attended by the marvelous Sarah McKinley Austin (the part is played in rotation by three young actors: Austin, Lily Brooks O'Briant, and Savannah Grace Elmer). At the opposite end of the spectrum from the children in the opening number, Matilda is a bookish, brilliant 5-year-old who lives with her odious parents, Mr. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld), a crooked used car salesman, and Mrs. Wormwood (Cassie Silva), a ballroom dance enthusiast.
Matilda also has a dimwitted brother (Danny Tieger), seemingly beloved by their parents simply for reflecting their own stupidity. Her parents are bewildered by her fascination with books and angered by her incessant moralizing about doing what's right. They treat Matilda with indifference at best, and contempt at worst, while Mr. Wormwood makes it clear that he'd wished for another son and constantly refers to Matilda as "boy." With a home life as miserable as Matilda's, the occasional bit of misbehavior is called for, and she enacts her own small rebellions by, say, filling her father's hat with superglue. It's a small victory, but she takes what she can get.
Matilda has just started Kindergarten at a school run by the fascist headmistress, Miss Agatha Trunchbull (ferociously embodied by David Abeles), a former Olympic hammer thrower who runs her academy like a prison yard. She takes great pleasure in devising devious punishments for misbehaving children, and in her mind, the mischievous includes anyone who dares to think differently than her. The school motto is "Bambinatumestmaggitum" or "children are maggots," and it reflects Trunchbull's attitude quite well.
Happily, there is one bright spot in Matilda's life: her kind but timid teacher Miss Honey (the lovely Jennifer Blood), who immediately sees Matilda for the miraculous child she is. She also rather quickly gathers that the young girl has gotten a raw deal in life. She vows to do whatever she can to help Matilda, and the two develop a sweet relationship as their lives become a little less lonely with each other in it.
Throughout the show, Matilda weaves her own tale, following the adventures of an Escape Artist (played by Justin Packard, a Brockport native) and his Acrobat wife. She tells the story for the entertainment of the kindly town librarian, Miss Phelps (Ora Jones), though it often reflects and responds to the events of Matilda's own life.
"Matilda the Musical" is a wonderful production, filled with wit and imagination in every regard. Minchin's clever music is supported by an incredibly talented ensemble of "Revolting Children" (and a few adults), though occasionally the combination of accents, young voices, and fast-paced lyrics make it hard to catch every word. The inspired set design from Rob Howell uses alphabet blocks and bookcases to build a world in which words themselves are all-powerful. Choreographer Peter Darling ("Billy Elliot") contributes inventive staging to match -- the "School Song" number includes a bit with students climbing the school gate that's ingeniously done, and the sweet and poignant "When I Grow Up" utilizes swings to absolutely magical effect.
Despite the darkness of the material, "Matilda the Musical" would make a great, memorable first live theater experience for young audiences, just so long as parents don't mind their kids coming away with the message that sometimes it's OK to be a little bit naughty.