The team behind Matilda the Musical could have played it safe. The source book, written by Roald Dahl, is still popular enough to guarantee a couple months worth of solid ticket sales. And compared to most kid-focused fare, they wouldn't have had to work too hard to make a play we didn't hate. But lucky for us, "safe" was never part of the conversation. Instead, audiences are given a production that, like the book it's based on, is magical, full of life, and willing to confront the deep pain shadowing the tale's main characters.
If life is a lottery, you don't get further from winning than Matilda Wormwood. Her parents didn't want her, and remind her of this every chance they get. They also hate how smart Matilda is, and resent how stupid her big brain and constant reading make them feel. It only gets worse for her when she's sent to a school run by the top-heavy ex-Olympian Miss Trunchbull. Luckily, however, it's here, in this new nightmare, that Matilda meets Miss Honey, a shaky but loving teacher who immediately recognizes the genius of her unique student.
It's the blossoming of this special relationship that is at the heart of Matilda the Musical. Honey is an orphan and is, in her own words, "pathetic," scared of Miss Trunchbull and unable to really stick up for the kids she loves. But with Matilda comes her redemption, and a chance to protect the little girl's spirit that will, without intervention, soon flicker out. In Miss Honey, Matilda finds the loving, caring adult she has, up to this point, lied about having. Watching these two grow close, as they become exactly what the other one needs, is something I won't soon forget. And as the husband of a public school teacher, I found it to be the exact celebration of educators that our culture is in desperate need of.
As Miss Honey, Lauren Wood sings beautifully, and presents a truthful range of emotion as she moves from a broken-down woman to the heroic protector of Matilda. And in the title role, little Milly Shapiro is incredible. Whether surrounded by a cast of very talented children, or alone on an otherwise empty stage, Shapiro owns her moments, displaying a level of confidence that easily matches that of her character.
This is, however, a Dahl story, so of course the villians are just as much fun to watch. As Matilda's parents, Lesli Margherita and Gabriel Ebert are wonderfully nasty and brightly colored in both personality and clothing. And as Miss Trunchbull, Bertie Carvel makes it immediately clear why this role won him Britain's Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Dressed in a pleated skirt and black dress boots, I found it impossible to hate the evil Trunchbull, no matter how horrid or abusive she became.
The work off-stage is equally impressive. Dennis Kelly's book is well-written theatre on it's own, while at the same time a perfect companion to Tim Minchin's varied and enjoyable songs. Rob Howell's shape-shifting set, along with Paul Kieve's illusions, are amazing to watch. Peter Darling's choreography is original and energetic (especially in the acrobatic School Song). And as the director, Matthew Warchus makes fantastic use of almost every part of the Shubert Theatre. He also uses, to great effect, many staging techniques that I have seen in tiny comedy and improv theatres, but never in the old houses of Broadway.
In most cases, life is challenging from the start. Adults know this, but so do our children. We may try to hide this reality from them, but it isn't because they've asked us to. Dahl, like Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein, celebrated this intelligence in children, offering them stories filled with darkness, but also an abundance of joy and humanity. It's this same shading, along with the brilliant performances and "feast for the senses" staging, that makes Matilda the Musical a deeply satisfying theatre experience.