BWW Review: Roald Dahl Hit MATILDA 'Schools' Hershey Theatre
One word of warning about Roald Dahl's MATILDA: THE MUSICAL. If you don't know by now, this musical is about, and is full of, children. If you don't want to watch a cast of very talented children -more children than THE SOUND OF MUSIC, more very talented children than ANNIE -this is the wrong show. It's also the wrong show if you hate irony, if you hate sarcasm, or if you hate major female parts played by men. If you're good with kids, good with male actors in female roles, and you're okay with bad Latin dancing -a little-discussed element of the show, and intentionally not-good Latin dance -then sit right down and make yourself comfy, because this might just be your show.
We're partly joking, of course, as the whole world must know of the musical juggernaut that is MATILDA. While Ben Brantley of the New York Times was perhaps incorrect in his thoughts that the show is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it's a show that harks back to the great days of book musicals, when sets were sets, when costumes were costumes, when ensembles went over the top, and when plots could run deep and multiple subplots worked. You can see this magic on stage at the Hershey Theatre, and appreciate the return of pre-1980's musicals -not sung-through, not extravaganzas, not near-circuses, but the telling of stories.
MATILDA is the telling, of course, of Dahl's well-known story of the sufferings of an intelligent child in a dull-average family in which the father is a slimy used-car salesman, the mother studies Latin dance, and the brother is a blob on a chair. Cassie Silva is a terrifically amusing Mrs. Wormwood, who's also an especially lithe dancer; Quinn Mattfeld is a fine vaudevillian as Mr. Wormwood, not only as an actor and singer, but down to the extravagant plaid suit. Danny Tieger as Michael brings some actual character to Matilda's brother, who could easily disappear into the upholstery without a strong performer.
But it's at school and the library where Matilda Wormwood lives her life, abused as her mental skills are by her family. Ora Jones as librarian Mrs. Phelps is, in a word, wonderful; she is a fine performer, yes, but her character itself is wondrous, and wondering; she lives to hear Matilda's storytelling and cannot imagine parents who could not be proud of Matilda's creativity. Mrs. Phelps is the iconic librarian we all wish every library had and that those who are friends of librarians will recognize. At school, where Matilda's storytelling intersects with real life, the personages are kindly teacher Miss Honey, played by the lovely Jennifer Blood, and the delightfully evil and horrifying Miss Trunchbull, delivered with hilariously over-the-top villainy by Bryce Ryness. While it's Miss Honey's role to be cowed by Miss Trunchbull, Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress, is a character of such overwhelming fiendish delight as to be worth seeing in her own right; she is, in many ways, the star of the show, as all great villains are.
MATILDA has, as it must, a rotating cast of Matildas and other children; on the review night, Matilda was played by Gabby Gutierrez, the first Filipina Matilda. She's a delightful young performer with stage presence and some serious vocal talent. The other children are also strong juvenile performers, most with a healthy list of prior credits. Notable were Charlie Kersh, playing Matilda's self-appointed best friend, Lavender, and Evan Gray as Bruce, the class foil for almost everyone and everything, including Miss Trunchbull.
There are a few completely delightful scenes, including Matilda's library storytelling, the top of the second act with Mr. Wormwood and Michael, and Lavender's "I can't tell you what happens next but I will" scene. The moment Miss Trunchbull meets the newt is, as the current word goes, epic.
There are flaws with MATILDA, notably the overuse, nigh unto death, of some repetitive jokes, and moments when Tim Minchin's lyrics really do replace viable emotion with a little much sarcasm. At this production, audience members in some parts of the theatre may find lights a bit blinding, and words a bit obscured in the sound system, particularly in many of the songs. And it's certainly easy to find Matilda's imaginary story -the one she tells to Mrs. Phelps -a bit too obvious, a bit too overplayed, a bit too hackneyed. It's far too clear before the end just who all the characters in her tale of acrobats and intrigue are, and it comes to feel forced. And then there's the ending itself, which you may be torn between finding absurdly delightful and Just A Bit Too Much. If anything is wrong with the show overall, it's the frequency of A Bit Too Much. But it's a cheery show, as deep or as meaningless as you want it to be (as with all of Dahl's writing), and certainly an encouragement to girls to go ahead and be clever, and unless you can't enjoy children on stage, it's time well spent. Especially watching Miss Trunchbull in action.
Story by Roald Dahl, book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. A production of the Royal Shakespeare Company. At Hershey Theatre through November 15. Call 717-862-4521 or visit hersheytheatre.com.