BWW Review: Magical MATILDA: THE MUSICAL at PPAC
Adapting a beloved children's classic to Broadway is so fraught with landmines that it's a wonder people even attempt it since it seems like there's no way to possibly make something as fantastic as the original. Good thing Denis Kelly (Book) and Tim Minchin (Music & Lyrics) are braver and more creative than most because they managed to create something that is both brand new and also incredibly faithful to the original. Roald Dahl, author of the book Matilda, has such a unique voice and bizarre ways to torture the children in his stories, usually by placing them at the mercy of moronic adults that one worries anything based on his work coming out post 2010 would be sanitized and inoffensive to the point of being a pale shadow of the original. Well, MATILDA: THE MUSICAL has all the pigtail tossing and forced feeding one requires from the Matilda story, along with some fantastically cheeky songs, and excellent performances all around.
The story of Matilda, for those who are unfamiliar, is about a girl in a small English village being raised by parents who are two of the stupidest and most selfish human beings who ever existed. Her father is a used-car salesman, who spends his downtime bragging about fleecing people by rolling back the odometers on cars before selling them, and mixing sawdust into the oil to make them break down and need to be replaced faster. Her mother's only love is dancing with her partner Rudolpho, and Matilda's brother is a genuine dolt who speaks in single word sentences and who her parents think is amazing. At the age of two, Matilda teaches herself to read and escapes into the world of books. At age five, she goes to school for the first time, and her teacher Miss Honey recognizes her genius. Unfortunately, the head of school, Madame Trunchbull had been warned by Matilda's father that she was a troublemaker, so Miss Honey devises a plan to bring Matilda advanced books to read, while her peers learn how to read and add.
What works so well to hold this story together as a musical, are the songs, which perfectly frame the course of the story. Starting out with the children singing "Miracle" in which they all proclaim that their parents think they're the best and brightest children who ever lived, contrasted with Matilda's parents who may actually live with the brightest child of her era, but who they constantly berate for not watching enough television. Then the children arrive at school to find out that they are in no way special, and they've entered an educational thunderdome where you need to just keep your head down and mouth shut to survive. Matilda adapts to these circumstances fairly well since they're not that different from her home life, but in the song "Naughty" she admits that sometimes adults need to be put in their place, and she's the girl to do it.
Unfortunately, it's a bit easier to torture her parents than it is to make headway with the most sinister school headmistress in the world: Miss Trunchbull. Miss Trunchbull, played amazingly menacingly by Dan Chameroy, looks exactly as Quentin Blake drew her in the book version of Matilda. In fact, the stage version's casting is exceptional in its faithfulness to the look of the characters in the book, and the sets match the look and feel, but bring a new dimension and wonder to the classic illustrations.
The "School Song" in particular is visually magnificent as the older students shove blocks with the letters of the alphabet into the gates of the school and then climb around on them singing about how the younger kids will have to forget that their parents think they're miracles now that they're in school. The sets as a whole are fantastic, and the scene transitions are so quick and smooth that they keep the pace up perfectly.
In the touring production, there are three girls playing Matilda, as I imagine each of them is completely exhausted after each performance and needs time to recover. Friday night was Jenna Weir, who has the level of poise and polish I'm still aspiring to as an "adult". She has a fantastic singing voice and is such a perfect Matilda when you're watching her, it's impossible to imagine anyone else ever playing the role.
Gabby Beredo as Matilda's best friend Lavender is also exceptional and displays some excellent comic timing; as is Soren Thayne Miller as Bruce Bogtrotter. Fans of the book will be thrilled to hear that Bruce also eats the whole cake in the stage production, and through some kind of theatrical magic seems to grown larger as he does it, with the buttons on his shirt popping after the last bite, and a healthy smear of chocolate on his rotund face. Isabella Stuebing as Amanda of the golden blonde pigtails, gets to fly off into a field as Trunchbull throws her like a hammer.
There are so many wonderful moments and songs in this show that fans of the book and newcomers will find themselves equally delighted. Matilda is such a special book, and it's absolutely delightful to report that the musical is just as wonderful and true to the twisted spirit Roald Dahl intended, but this time with clever and catchy songs!
Matilda: The Musical runs May 17-21 at Providence Performing Arts Center 220 Weybosset St, Providence, RI 02903. Tickets are available at ppacri.org, or by calling 401-421-ARTS