PPAC's "Matilda": The Children Are Revolting

The Company of "Matilda the Musical"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Matilda the Musical, now being presented at PPAC, is a show based on the original children's novel by Roald Dahl, with Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin and Book by Dennis Kelly. It first won seven Olivier Awards in London, transferring to Broadway in 2013 where it lost the Tony Award for Best Musical (to Kinky Boots). While renowned for creativity on many levels, the show lacked the heart audiences sought. Still, it managed to last over 1550 performances in the New York run, and remains a popular favorite on the road, with its audience-pleasing aspects of anarchy, brutal honesty and dark humor, sometimes wasted on unsophisticated adults who don't always “get” the central five-year-old telekinetic character.

Attempting a synopsis of Matilda is like putting a genie back in the bottle, but let's give it a go. Children ponder life as adults, while meanwhile their parents declare they're all a Miracle. As Mr. Wormwood (Matt Harrington) warns that they are preaching a dangerous moral, namely that books are superior to shows on the telly, the students at Crunchem Hall posit that sometimes one has to be a little bit Naughty, and Lavender (Gabby Beredo) shares that she's going to put a newt in headmistress Miss Trunchbull's (Dan Chameroy's) water bottle. Matilda Wormwood also announces that no one but she is going to change her story, and she will fight injustice. The student body sings of never escaping tragedy in the School Song: just wait for Phys Ed!  Meanwhile one atypically nice teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles) describes herself as Pathetic when she can't even knock on the door of Miss Trunchbull's office, containing her trophies from The Hammer-throwing days of conquests and advice that you “stay within the lines”. Then Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) chimes in with her own advice about being Loud, namely that what you know matters less than the volume with which what you don't know, is expressed. Miss Honey sings that another door closes and she,This Little Girl, is left outside. Another student known for his eating prowess, Bruce (Soren Thayne Miller) proves you can have your cake and eat it too. And there's that chilling admission that all one knows comes from watching Telly- that you can tell how clever one is from the size of one's telly. Mr.Wormwood expresses pleasure at duping wealthy Russians into buying his worn-out old autos. And that's just the first act.

The second act begins with the students' rebellious anthem, When I Grow Up, wherein they sing “just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean you just have to grin and bear it”. One character declares I'm Here for the little girl as the Smell of Rebellion pervades. Now the virtues of Quiet are proposed (“this noise becomes anger and the anger is light and this beast inside me would usually fade but isn't today”) and Miss Honey extols the virtues of My House. The students plot their revenge in Revolting Children (“if enough of us are wrong, then wrong is right”). Just how this happens, (that is, how Matilda learns about Miss Honey's past and her future prospects), well, you wouldn't want a spoiler to ruin all the malicious fun, now would you?

The cast at the press opening performance included Jenna Weir as Matilda. (Three actresses alternate in the role; at other performances, Gabby Gutierrez and Jaime MacLean take turns playing the title role). The creative team included Musical Direction by Bill Congdon, Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, Set and Costume Design by Rob Howell and Sound Design by Simon Baker. The Director was Matthew Warchus and the Choreographer was Peter Darling. One problem persisted in this huge hall; even with reasonable familiarity with the lyrics, most of the cast might as well have been singing in Swahili. But, heart or no heart, it was surely an energetic show embraced by most of the audience (except some who were inappropriately way too young for live theater).

If these days call for demonstrating one's resistance (and they do, they do), one couldn't hope for a more perfect role model than that Dahl-ing Little Girl, Matilda.

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