Imagine a musical that extols the power of the written word to change lives, that celebrates giftedness in students without demeaning the less advanced, that insists addiction to television turns the brain into Cream of Stupidity.
Do so and you have imagined “Matilda the Musical,” which reimagines Roald Dahl’s novel and turns out to be one of the most imaginative national tours to roll through Belk Theater in years.
The cleverness begins with Rob Howell’s set, an assemblage of hanging fragments in which letters subtly spell out words, and the satiric opening number – “Miracle” – in which obsessive parents proclaim every child in an ordinary class a superlative achiever. (Howell and book writer Dennis Kelly won Tony Awards, as did lighting designer Hugh Vanstone.)
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This class, run by Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) in a school overseen by vicious Agatha Trunchbull (David Abeles), does contain one extraordinary child: Matilda Wormwood, a self-effacing first-grader who performs complicated math in her head and reads Dostoevsky. (Another remarkable quality emerges in Act 2; I won’t spoil the surprise.)
Three actresses play Matilda in rotation; Sarah McKinley Austin opened the run Tuesday and seemed utterly at home. Her Matilda never shows self-pity or a craving to be loved; she puts her ideal of fairness into practice at home and school, speaking up for herself and others.
Two allies, Miss Honey and a kindly librarian (Ora Jones), love her but have little power to help. So she rolls up her metaphoric sleeves, declares that sometimes one gets ahead only by being a little bit naughty – at least in the eyes of lame-brained adults – and plunges ahead.
Kelly and composer-lyricist Tim Minchin have structured the show so that Matilda and these two women are the only main characters who behave normally. Director Matthew Warchus, taking his cue from Dahl, turns the others into exaggerated gargoyles.
Matilda’s egotistical parents (Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva) think of nothing but money and dancing, respectively, and their moronic neglect compels Matilda to quickly become a little adult.
True evil exists only in the looming form of Trunchbull, a former Olympic hammer thrower. Abeles (the role is always played by a man) doesn’t overstress her anger; her main sin is maniacal addiction to order, and slight deviations from her rules trigger savage punishments.
The soloists project well, though the chorus of kids – which performs Peter Darling’s choreographed movements with drill-team precision – inevitably muddles words at high speeds or in vocally overlapping sections. The show supplies lyric sheets for ensemble numbers, and you’ll find them on the grand tier level.
By the way, Tuesday’s audience was full of children, some as young as Matilda’s character. Neither Dahl’s book (written for grades three through five) nor this show targets them, and the 150-minute running time may seem long. Yet youngsters around me stayed quiet; if they missed details, the empowerment lesson still took hold.