Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Matilda the Musical
National Tour
Review by Nancy Grossman

Also see Nancy's review of I Was Most Alive With You


The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The first national tour of Matilda the Musical is having its Boston premiere at the Boston Opera House. Based on the children's novel "Matilda" by Roald Dahl, the show would seem to be for and about children, but this grownup was charmed by the five-year old at the heart of the story. Rejected, neglected, and disrespected by her parents, Matilda Wormwood finds her way in the world, thanks to her love of reading, some special talents, and a couple of caring adults. Tony Award-winning bookwriter Dennis Kelly does not shy away from the darkness in Dahl's story, but he and composer Tim Minchin embrace the opportunity it provides to empower Matilda and all of the other little "miracles" who descend upon Crunchem Hall.

Three girls alternate in the lead role on the tour and Sarah McKinley Austin drew the lot to appear on opening night (Lily Brooks O'Briant and Savannah Grace Elmer are the other two). Although I had trouble hearing her when she was telling Matilda's story within the story, she has a lovely, clear singing voice and stage presence to spare, comfortably commanding the spotlight. Austin has palpable chemistry with her two saviors, the librarian Mrs. Phelps (a warm, supportive Keisha T. Fraser) and her teacher Miss Honey (Paula Brancati), and displays the appropriate disdain for the nefarious adults in her life. Brancati creates a damaged character who is insecure and sympathetic, but able to put the needs of a little girl ahead of her own fears. As the story goes on, Miss Honey gets stronger and Brancati channels that into her singing, modulating her voice to reflect her growth.

Matilda's sleazy parents already have an older son Michael (Darren Burkett) and do not welcome the new baby. Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) sees her as a disruption to her ballroom dancing, while wheeler-dealer Mr. Wormwood (Brandon McGibbon) can't believe she's not a boy. They are embarrassed by Matilda's interest in books (Mr. W. swears by the telly as the best source of knowledge) and anxiously ship her off to school as soon as possible. At Crunchem Hall, Matilda and her young classmates are given the lay of the land by the older kids ("School Song") and encounter Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy), a holy terror of a headmistress if there ever was one. He is aided by his costume and the severe knot of hair atop his head, but Chameroy is pitch perfect as the child-hating, anti-intellectual, hammer-throwing champion school official. The way he looks down his nose and sashays around the stage bring to mind the late, great Paul Lynde.

The ensemble of children is outstanding, performing Peter Darling's choreography in sync and with unflagging energy. Ryan Christopher Dever (Bruce) nails his role, especially when he must consume an entire chocolate cake ("Bruce") and later when he gets to show off his rock star vocals while leading the company in "Revolting Children." Although the production opts not to have the kids use British accents, their dialogue and lyrics are not uniformly understandable. The adults fare much better even with accents. In addition to the over-the-top antics of Stewart and McGibbon, Stephen Diaz (Rudolpho) has incredible moves and is hysterical as Mrs. W's dance partner. In the dual roles of the doctor who delivers Matilda and The Escape Artist in her fictional story, Justin Packard cuts a dashing figure and sings beautifully ("I'm Here").

Minchin's score, played to perfection by an orchestra of a dozen musicians under music director/conductor Matthew Smedal, advances the plot and develops the characters well. There is at least one song that you'll be able to sing on the way out of the theater ("When I Grow Up"), made even more memorable by the staging. Some of the features of Rob Howell's set design are sliding walls, floor to ceiling shelves of drawings of books for the library, and a dark and daunting exterior for Crunchem Hall that evokes a haunted house. Howell is also the costume designer and creates a contrast between the drab, gray school uniforms and the bold, colorful, crass clothing of the Wormwoods. Lighting design is by Hugh Vanstone, sound design is by Simon Baker, and illusions are by Paul Kieve.

Matilda the Musical is funny, delightful, and empowering, with a cast of characters you will care about, thumbs up or thumbs down, but neutrality is not an option. Austin is such a pro that she makes it look easy, but Matilda is a multi-faceted character. She stands up for herself and fights back at the adults who emotionally abuse her, but she is, after all, a little girl in need of love and support. I won't tell you how things end for Matilda, but Austin has no problem getting us to love her.

Matilda the Musical, performances through June 26, 2016, at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers, the first national tour is presented as part of the 2015-2016 Lexus Broadway in Boston Season; Ticketmaster 800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayInBoston.com. For more information on the tour, visit us.matildathemusical.com/tour.

Book by Dennis Kelly, Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin; Director, Matthew Warchus; Choreography, Peter Darling; Musical Director, Matthew Smedal; Orchestrations & Additional Music, Chris Nightingale; Set & Costume Design, Rob Howell; Sound Design, Simon Baker; Lighting Design, Hugh Vanstone; Illusion, Paul Kieve; Production Stage Manager, Victoria Navarro

Cast at this performance (in order of appearance): Stephen Diaz, Justin Packard, Darcy Stewart, Brandon McGibbon, Sarah McKinley Austin, Darren Burkett, Keisha T. Fraser, Paula Brancati, Kim Sava, Dan Chambray, Eric Craig, Jacqueline Burtney, Cameron Burke, Anthony MacPherson, Gray Monczka, Laurin Padolina, Ryan Christopher Dever, Charlie Kersh, Will Coombs, Austyn Johnson, Madison Smith, Cassidy Hagel, Megan McGuff, Jordan Hall


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