Friday, October 21, 2016

Theater Review - Matilda

Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Where: Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York, NY
When: Saturday, September 10, 8pm

Expectations were very high when I walked into the Shubert Theatre in New York City to see Matilda, a musical based on a book by Roald Dahl, one of my favorite authors as a kid.  Reviews for the production (which is closing at the end of the year) were very strong upon its opening in April 2013 and I've been itching to see it for quite some time.  Admittedly, it wasn't quite as fantastic as I had hoped -- the problem with going in with such high expectations, I suppose -- but it was still an enjoyable evening at the theater highlighted by what I think are some of the cleverest lyrics I've heard in a Broadway show in some time.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with Matilda is its story in that there isn't much of one throughout the musical's 160-minute runtime.  Our title character (played in rotation by a cast of three young girls -- Ava Briglia at the performance I saw) is a bit of a genius.  With her head always in a book, she's certainly the brightest bulb in the Wormwood family...but that isn't saying much.  Dad (Rick Holmes) is a slimy used car salesman currently caught up in a scheme to sell wrecked cars to the Russian mob and Mom (Lesli Margherita) is an aspiring Latin ballroom dancer -- and neither of them have any time for Matilda.  In fact, as the opening song tells us, Matilda isn't wanted by her parents.  A burden, rather than a blessing, Matilda turned to education for solace from the chaos in the Wormwood household.  Hoping to curb a bit of Matilda's sassiness, the Wormwoods decide to send their daughter to a new school run by a grinch of a woman -- Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness playing in drag) -- whose claim to fame prior to running the school was being a champion Olympic hammer thrower for England.  Rather than embrace education, the Trunchbull instills fear in her students creating an atmosphere of terror which stands in stark contrast to Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), a fellow teacher at the school whose warm heart and tender nurturing provide the parental support to Matilda that she so desperately needs and deserves.

Sure, that sounds like a decent story, but to me, it's all exposition.  There's very little plot to go around in Dennis Kelly's book for Matilda and as the musical came to its end, I had this feeling of "That's all?"  Granted, in a lesser musical, this may be a bigger problem, but fortunately, Matilda contains some of the most cleverly written songs I've come across thanks to Tim Minchin whose bitingly funny lyrics come at the audience so quickly that I found myself often reacting to his ingenious wordplay in oddly delayed fashion.  Admittedly, the British accents impede some of the cleverness as does the fact that a vast majority of Minchin's work is being sung by kids under the age of 12 whose high-pitched falsetto-esque voices sometimes make some of their singing a bit tough to hear from the stage.  Still, the witty, Roald Dahl-esque lyrics are a true tribute to the musical's source material.

In a show that places young kids front and center for what is likely two-thirds of its runtime, the children in the production must carry a lot of the show's weight and the cast certainly succeeds in that department.  Ava Briglia undeniably holds our attention even when her quiet, subdued Matilda is being bombarded by the quirkier, larger-than-life figures that inhabit her life.  Kudos also to young Evan Gray who nailed my favorite song in the musical - "Revolting Children" - in a showstopping end to the evening.  Rick Holmes and Lesli Margherita as Matilda's parents reveled in their nastiness, making the most of their clever numbers and somehow making their over-the-top characters seem believable.  Bryce Ryness also deserves much credit for exuding an ogreish nastiness in Miss Trunchbull whose favorite saying -- "Children are maggots" -- keys us in to a character who begs for over-exaggeration which Ryness fully takes on.

Matilda is certainly an enjoyable evening at the theater, no doubt about it.  I simply had a case of higher expectations than I probably should have had going into it.  It isn't a perfect musical and, in fact, has a fairly big flaw in the storytelling department in my opinion, but it's cleverly humorous and very much in tone with what I imagine would be Roald Dahl's original intentions.

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