Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 11, 2013
Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical Book by Dennis Kelly. Music & lyrics by Tim Minchin. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreography by Peter Darling. Set & costume design by Rob Howell. Orchestrations & additional music by Chris Nightingale. Cast: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Bertie Carvel, Gabriel Ebert, Lesli Margherita, Lauren Ward, Karen Aldridge, Yurel Echezarreta, John Arthur Greene, Nadine Isenegger, Colin Israel, Thayne Jasperson, Tamika Sonja Lawrence, Celia Mei Rubin, John Sanders, Phillip Spaeth, Ryan Steele, Betsy Struxness, Samantha Sturm, Heather Tepe, Ben Thompson, Clay Thomson, Taylor Trensch, Frenie Acoba, Erica Simone Barnett, Judah Bellamy, Jack Broderick, Ava DeMary, Emma Howard, Luke Kolbe Mannikus, Madilyn Jaz Morrow, Sawyer Nunes, Jared Parker, Beatrice Tulchin, Ted Wilson.
As Miss Trunchbull, the diabolical headmistress of Crunchem Hall, Carvel is at once the shadowy embodiment of self-centered evil and an illuminative tribute to unapologetic theatricality. He brings an intense, balcony-hugging, needle-nosed focus to this hateful woman, who rules her adolescent (and younger) charges with an iron claw. But as he outlines the boundaries of her wickedness (assuming they are any), he stops just short of turning her into either a neon-lined meta comment or a full-blown caricature.
Appearing buxom above the waist and stick thin below, and wielding a voice pitched somewhere between a police siren and a flushing toilet, Miss Trunchbull is a walking, sneering mass of contradictions that against all odds resolves itself into a recognizable person brimming with passion and pride. Her governing ideas might be deplorable, or borderline illegal, but through his commitment Carvel ensures that you understand the method to her maliciousness every step of the way.
What's more, Carvel makes his achievement look both easy and sensible. The way he integrates everything from chocolate cake to streamers to strategic chest padding (and a lot of it) into his performance as well as this woman's psyche, as though Miss Trunchbull has learned how to use everything around her to justify her twisted worldview. She is, in other words, an original. So even if — okay, when — she's cruel in every imaginable way and then some, she never lets you forget that above all else she possesses genuine style and spark.
That's a good thing, too, because those two qualities are among the few things that Matilda doesn't otherwise brandish in spades. To be sure, in adapting their musical from Roald Dahl's darkly comic 1988 children's novel, librettist Dennis Kelly, songwriter Tim Minchin, and director Matthew Warchus have turned out a show that is efficient and fundamentally effective at being the family entertainment to which it aspires. And though their creation has been running in the U.K. since 2010, it is not a great show, much less a classic one.
Additional instances of this attitude are invoked later — throwaway first- and second-act finales, an eye-rolling second-act opener about the evils of television, and a couple of heartburn-tinged ballads in between being the most glaring culprits — but the real problem is simply that Matilda just doesn't step as high as you want it to. Once we meet the title character, of the Wormwood family, after that first number, things happily accelerate. We see how she's psychologically abused by her parents (Lesli Margherita and Gabriel Ebert) and forced to hide her unique intellectual gifts, or apply them toward returning their "favors" with vicious pranks, and her establishing song, "Naughty," is so vivacious-catchy that we're soon unable to resist it or her.
A trip to Crunchem, and the discovery of the one teacher who sees more than a misfit in Matilda, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), sets the plot in motion, and ignites a battle of wills that, in its structure, engages until the final curtain is in sight. If the pervasive artificiality of the writing and Warchus's staging (which, though lively, fails to display the fluidity or resourcefulness of what he provided for Ghost last season) don't let you become emotionally invested in anything that happens, Kelly's pointed faithfulness to the source where it counts prevents it from ever abandoning you, either.
Considering that, with the exception of "Naughty" and a deceptively clever alphabet-themed number outside the school gates, the score is a nonstarter makes this accomplishment more impressive. Far more invention is evidenced by Hugh Vanstone's sweeping lights, and Rob Howell's costumes and sets, the former bringing a lush color scape to the "real" world and oppressive grays to the school, and the latter an eye-popping, ever-evolving tribute to lettered building blocks that makes an astonishing amount out of a bewilderingly simple idea.
Would that the performances did the same, but they're a workmanlike bunch that rarely resolves the childlike cartoonishness into anything real. Margherita comes close with the self-absorbed mother who has eyes only for her burgeoning dancing career; more emblematic is the lanky Ebert, who delivers an intricate physical portrayal of Mr. Wormwood that is bewitching in both its complexity and its emptiness. Ward, all one-note graciousness and light, is not much more satisfying as Miss Honey.
Matilda herself is a challenging, perhaps impossible, role, requiring a young performer of prodigious singing gifts who can also capture an adult's spectrum of honest emotions as filtered through a five-year-old's precociousness — but without the broad strokes of writing of something like Annie that might simplify the process. This, and the punishing amount of time she spends onstage, probably explains this production's quadruple casting. For what it's worth, Milly Shapiro, was at most adequate: She shouted a majority of her lines, acted primarily through a furrowed brow and scrunched-up face, and her singing was in tune. Higher praise, alas, I cannot offer her, or her three alternates, whom I haven't seen.
Carvel, however, deserves every plaudit he can get — not for stealing the show away from the pre-tween lead, but owning it so thoroughly. He may not convince you that Miss Trunchbull is the victim of the piece, and desperately in need of your sympathy, but he's also not aiming for that. He's instead showing that love and devotion, consistently and cagily applied, can work magic. That this is also the message of Matilda, and your strongest takeaway from this enjoyable but decidedly imperfect show, is no coincidence.