Matilda


Timing is everything. Matilda is timed perfectly - it’s a very tight show. However, my timing with regard to when I saw it is less than perfect. The night before I saw it, I watched act one of the Carousel concert, the one with the New York Philharmonic that was broadcast on PBS and starred Kelli O’Hara, Jessie Mueller, Nathan Gunn, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild. I watched act two the day after I saw Matilda. And I had already heard audiences and the critics rave about the show before seeing it for myself. So by the time I saw it, the show fell flat. 

Inventive director Matthew Warchus (The Norman Conquests, Ghost) is a favorite of mine, and he is a master at bringing all different worlds to life. In translating the Roald Dahl book to the stage, Warchus oversees a musical with book by Dennis Kelly and a score by Tim Minchin; precise choreography by Peter Darling; expertly executed cues; and sharp singing, which is particularly impressive since a great many of the cast are children. Yet for all the well-done work, throughout the show I barely felt anything. It wasn’t until the end of act one that something came close to moving me, and I didn’t feel much more in act two.

The titular Matilda (Milly Shapiro at my performance) is a five-year old girl whose parents (Lesli Margherita and Gabriel Ebert) make it quite clear that they wish she was a boy and that they don’t like her - particularly her brains and penchant for reading. (They continually encourage her to put down the books and just watch the telly.) At school, Matilda encounters an equally repugnant headmistress (Bertie Carvel, in drag), who bullies the children under her charge. But all these unloving adults are so kooky and zany (the entire show is filled with these over the top characters) that it is difficult to take their machinations seriously and actually be concerned for Matilda’s well being. 

There are some adults who are not totally awful to Matilda, like her librarian friend Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge), but it’s her teacher Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) who stands out as the one heartbeat of the story. Were it not for Miss Honey’s storyline—like Matilda, she was less than loved as a girl and has been bullied by the adults who were supposed to support her—this show would be completely hollow. 

That faint heartbeat made it difficult for me to see the stakes and to discern the lesson of Matilda. Matilda is constantly telling her father and the headmistress that their actions are not right, fair or truthful. Yet, Matilda gleefully sings a song about it being OK to be a little bit naughty, and she takes her revenge and effects a happy ending (with the help of telekinetic powers that show up out of the blue and for seemingly perfunctory purposes) by doing things that aren’t right, fair or truthful. So what’s the take away supposed to be? 

Perhaps I missed something by not being at all familiar with the book or the movie beforehand. It’s also possible that I missed something in the story because the lyrics were difficult to decipher amid the children’s English accents. But it’s also possible that something is missing from the show. While I didn’t find the score to be generic as I did with its main competition this season, Kinky Boots, I wasn’t bowled over by it, either. Nothing about the score stood out as exceptional, whether good or bad. 

There were some good performances, though. Ebert (Suicide, Incorporated) is gangly and good as the doofus father. He brought a sleazy but ultimately harmless used-car salesmanship to the role, which was fitting since the father is actually trying to sell a lot of used cars to Russian business men. (The Russians come in at the end, lending to the slapdash, madcap-comedy feel of the show’s conclusion. I don’t mean that as a compliment.) I heard a fellow audience member say that Ebert reminded her of Dick Van Dyke and I have to agree. 

Then there’s Bertie Carvel as the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. He is good, but I can’t understand why this role is played by a man. Is it simply because they needed a person of a certain size? I suppose, but Carvel’s understudies, while not petite men, are in no way an overpowering physical presence. As it is, Carvel seems to relish the camp required of him, even if it does come with a lot of mugging for the audience.

The role of Matilda is share by four young girls: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro. I saw Shapiro. She has a nice voice and is clearly well-trained (unlike some of those screechers in Billy Elliot a few years ago). It seemed odd to me, though, that a show called Matilda didn’t feature Matilda too prominently, especially when it comes to musical numbers. For me the highlight was Lauren Ward as the tender Miss Honey. Ward (pictured at right) has a fantastic voice and succeeded in carrying the heart of the show. 

Still, it comes back to timing. Watching this new Broadway musical in between watching a stellar performance of a classic Broadway musical, I couldn’t help but be bothered by the flash on stage at the Shubert. (Literally. There were disco balls and lasers.) The concert staging (at Lincoln Center) of Carousel, with its minimal sets, costumes and other adornments, proves that if you have a compelling story and a knock out score, you don’t need all the razzle dazzle, like laser beams and swings on set, a la Matilda. And even if you’re trying to bring a playful attitude to the show (it is about children, after all), there are new modern classics, like Peter and the Starcatcher, that prove you don’t need glitz, just pure imagination. So as my time with Matilda passed by, I kept thinking, “everyone is raving and I just don’t understand why.”

(Want to know why people are raving? Read Ben Brantley's New York Times review of the new musical.)

Comments

  1. I find it very interesting that there seems to be a thing where the people who feel that the musical doesn't live up to the hype really like Lauren Ward's performance, and those who mostly really liked it find her performance to be weak.
    I guess it's just due to the noticeable contrast in Miss Honey and the rest of the characters.

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