Monday, April 15, 2013

Matilda (Shubert Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 book not only swept the theatrical awards in London, but opened to ecstatically positive notices here, so I must confess I was feeling very much out of step as I found myself not totally enraptured when I saw “Matilda” for myself last week.

Matthew Warchus’ staging is brilliantly imaginative, to be sure, and Rob Howell’s costume and set design, dominated by giant blocks, books, and Scrabble pieces creates a bewitching environment, but for all that, I didn’t immediately warm to Tim Minchin’s spiky score with its many patter songs, as not all of them are clearly articulated by the cast, particularly the children with their faux English accents. (Comprehension is not helped by Simon Baker’s sound design, pitched too loud.)

Dahl’s story concerns a precocious five-year-old girl with perfectly awful parents – her mother (Lesli Margherita) a vulgar lady with ballroom dancing aspirations, her father (Gabriel Ebert) a crooked used-car salesman – who must cope at school with a sadistic head mistress, Miss Trunchbull, played with gleeful panache by the cross-dressing Bertie Carvel in a manner that makes Miss Hannigan from “Annie” seem the picture of maternal care by comparison. Only kindly Miss Honey provides Matilda with emotional comfort, and in that role, Lauren Ward gives a truly lovely performance and gets to sing a couple of the score’s most lyrical numbers.

Oona Laurence, who shares the titular part with three other girls, was Matilda at my performance, and sporadic matters of diction aside, gave an endearing performance, by turns, grave, pensive, and winningly resourceful.

Karen Aldridge is a warm, funny presence as Mrs. Phelps, the local librarian from whom Matilda gets the books (from Dickens to Dostoevsky) which give her the inspiration to take control of her life despite all the hard knocks.

Peter Darling’s choreography is sharp and clever, including a couple of ingenious numbers set in the gymnasium and on swings respectively.

Yet, for all this, I found myself rather indifferent, the feeling compounded, I’m sure, by that dodgy diction that made comprehension of key plot elements sometimes hard to follow, as I had no familiarity with either the novel or Danny DeVito’s film version.

It was only when I returned home and listened to the London cast album (more than once) that I finally appreciated the cleverness and beauty of Minchin’s score, and in hindsight, the skillful construction of Dennis Kelly’s book.

Now fully indoctrinated, I look forward to another visit.

(Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, or 212-239-6200)
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