Regional Reviews: Chicago
The eponymous character is borne of an unplanned pregnancy to a mother with no interest in parenting and a father who would be okay with raising a second child if that child were a boy. The parents largely neglect Matilda (the dad calls her a boy) and send her to a school run by an abusive martinet of a headmistress. The novel has developed quite a following among families, despite the fact that's its satirical target might have been more resonant (in the U.S. at least) some 60 years ago. If anything, we need more of Willy Wonka's philosophy today.
Regardless, there's merit to reaffirming the reality that kids are people too. They deserve the same respect and kindness as adults and, even more, the recognition and nurturing of each person's unique value and abilities. That is the message of Matilda the Musical, but the book by Dennis Kelly spends way more time on the neglect of the parents and abuse by the Headmistress. Yes, there's the kindly librarian who provides books to the gifted Matilda and the young teacher who encourages and tries to protect her, but Dennis Kelly and songwriter Tim Minchin spend way more time on the bad stuff. Director Matthew Warchus can't settle on a tone, so while the inclination is to enjoy the comically presented bad adult behavior by reminding ourselves that this is Dahl's Wonka-esque satire, the more heartfelt scenes showing Matilda's pain and the adults who try to help her pull us back into reality. And while we should believe in Matilda, and cheer for her various means of fighting backfirst pranks, then Carrie-like telekinesisthere's no real arc to keep us optimistic.
We sit through some two hours of child abuse without any rising tension or increasing sense of hope until Matilda ultimately prevails in the last 20 minutes of stage time. And while we're counting minutes, two hours and 40 of them is way too many for what this show has to say and how it says it. Listening to the child actors sing the show's second act song, "When I Grow Up," I was thinking that they probably had grown up by that point. It may be that a good share of my impatience with this piece was due to the difficulty understanding much of the dialogue and lyrics. British slang and idioms are frequently hard to follow (I give the Brits credit for having many more ways to say things than do we Americans), but the muddy sound design and high pitched voices of the kids made many of the words unintelligible.
Matilda the Musical was commissioned by Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, transferred in 2011 to London's West End (where it's still playing) and opened on Broadway in 2013 (where it's also still running). Clearly, the show has its admirers and there's no denying the talent involved. Rob Howell's fanciful and colorful sets and costumes are knockouts as is Hugh Vanstone's otherworldly lighting. The cast of preteen singers and dancers are truly amazing as they execute Peter Darling's very snappy dances that capture the ways kids move.
No quarrels with the cast of this tour either. Quinn Mattfeld is a terrifically physical and verbal comic as Matilda's father and Cassie Silva delightfully self-absorbed as the mom. David Abeles is a frightening Miss Trumbullsqueezing every inch of venality he can from the harridan schoolmistress. Chicago's Ora Jones is a sweet, Caribbean-accented librarian (though please, Ora, get out of this show and stay home in Chicago where we can see you in better roles) and Jennifer Blood is a warm Miss Honey. The opening night's Matilda, Lily Brooks O'Briant, who alternates in the roles with Sarah McKinley Austin and Savannah Grace Elmer, is winning as the heroine.
With a tighter book and more consistent tone, this could have been a truly magical piece of stagecraft worthy of the time and money so many families have been devoting to it. Clearly, after five years on the West End and three on Broadway there are many who believe that's exactly what it is. To my eye, it's a big grab bag of pretty stuff that doesn't coalesce into cohesive whole.
Matilda the Musical will play the Oriental Theatre, 24 West Randolph, Chicago, through April 10, 2016. For ticket information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit us.matildathemusical.com/tour.