Chicago Theatre Review
Roald Dahl’s Classic Comes to Life
Matilda, the Musical – Broadway in Chicago
Roald Dahl’s popular children’s fantasy about a little English girl who endures emotional abuse from both her family and the headmistress of her school first came to life on Broadway three years ago. Adapted by Dennis Kelley, with an impressive score by Tim Minchin, the musical initially sprung to life on stage, for a limited run, in Stratford-on-Avon. When it was lauded by both local critics and theatergoers, the musical inspired a transfer to London’s West End in 2011. There, the musical went on to win Best Musical, as well as six other Olivier Awards, the most ever earned by a single production. When the show transferred to Broadway it became a huge hit all over again, taking home five Tonys, as well as several other awards.
Now this extraordinary musical is touring the United States and has finally reached Chicago in an eye-popping, beautifully performed production that should be on every theatergoer’s must-see list. Matthew Warchus has directed his production with sass and spirit, staging this musical as if it sprung directly from a child’s imagination. Working closely with choreographer Peter Darling (whose brilliantly inspiring work on “Billy Elliot” earned every major award), this show leaps off the page, onto the stage and into the lap of theatergoers. A wildly imaginative and energetic musical, this story is both dark and frightening, while still very funny and fanciful. The musical is creative and inventive, while always staying true to Roald Dahl’s grim, yet magical novel for kids.
The story is a bit involved, yet quite accessible to young audiences, as well as their accompanying adults. Matilda’s callous, self-centered and dishonest parents ignore her most of the time, except when they’re ridiculing her for reading. They hate books but adore the telly. Her father even thinks that Matilda’s a boy. The precocious little girl eventually finds a welcome niche at the local library, where she not only teaches herself to read, while devouring some of the world’s greatest literature, but also creates intricate stories herself. With these, she entertains Mrs. Phelps, the kindly librarian, who delights in Matilda’s frequent visits.
When Matilda begins school she finds another friend in her teacher, Miss Honey. The little girl’s intelligence, creativity and melancholy is recognized by her pretty, soft-spoken instructor, an educator who dearly loves her students. She tries to teach them important life skills while protecting them (and herself) from the harsh punishments doled out by the school’s maniacal headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. This sour disciplinarian only loves herself, her prowess at throwing the hammer at Olympic competitions and bragging about how clever and powerful she’s become. She hates children, however, and enjoys terrorizing them, often unfairly punishing them by stuffing them in her notorious, Iron Maiden-like torture chamber she calls the Chokey.
Eventually, Matilda finds that she also possesses telekinetic powers. She uses this talent to torment her parents and her headmistress, when everyday, naughty childish tricks aren’t enough. In addition, Matilda also discovers that the story she’s been making up and sharing with Mrs. Phelps actually really happened. Her psychic powers have enabled the little girl to unravel the tragic events from Miss Honey’s past, helping her to solve a hidden mystery. It involves a secret murder, an evil aunt and a stolen family inheritance. As the story progresses, Matilda becomes stronger and more self-reliant and, together with Miss Honey, she conquers the evil and ignorance surrounding her and eventually lives happily ever after.
Everything about this wonderful National Touring production works brilliantly (with the exception of some much-needed balance between Matthew Smedal’s full, rich orchestra and the cast’s talented vocal work). As the opening night’s Matilda, Lily Brooks O’Briant is quite simply marvelous. At nine years of age, this little lady carries this entire show. She has the voice, the resilient, deadpan character and the precise English dialect down perfectly. She shares this demanding title role with two other actresses at alternating performances: Sarah McKinley Austin and Savannah Grace Elmer. From Broadway’s “Violet” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” this production is fortunate to have the gifted Ms. Jennifer Blood playing Miss Honey. As the loving primary teacher, she provides the perfect balance between loving calm and reserved indignation. Ms. Blood’s crystal clear soprano cradles every song, particularly the lovely “This Little Girl” and the sincere and affecting “My House.”
As Agatha Trumbull, the story’s villainous headmistress of Crunchem Hall, Broadway star David Abeles is formidable and deliciously evil. Ever since Bertie Carvel created this disciplinarian drag role in London, several other actors have made the Trunchbull their own. Mr. Abeles brings his personal dry delivery, his piercing glare and a certain overgrown athleticism that make this witchy woman the most frightening blackguard to be in charge of children since Annie’s Miss Hannigan. Costumed precisely as illustrator Quentin Blake drew her in Roald Dahl’s book, Abeles’ Miss Trunchbull is frumpy, fustian and fastidious. In short, he makes every scene a devilish delight.
The accomplished ensemble, many of whom are also children, alternate in key student roles. They consist of (on opening night) the very commanding and dynamic Ryan Christopher Dever as Bruce; Charlie Kersh, as Matilda’s self-professed best friend, Lavender; Trey Middleton, as Nigel, Austyn Johnson as innocent, pigtailed Amanda, Aristotle Rock as little Eric, Cassidy Hagel as Alice, Megan McGuff as Hortensia and Jordan Hall as Tommy. Chicago’s own Ora Jones is mannerly and maternal as Mrs. Phelps, Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfield make a delightfully over-the-top Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s obnoxious parents, and Michael Graceffa is a sultry, rubber-limbed dance instructor, named Rudolpho.
Matthew Warchus’ sharp, insightful direction, combined with the energetic, floor-pounding, angst-ridden choreography by Peter Darling, are nicely supported by Hugh Vanstone’s well-designed illumination and Rob Howell’s inventive, Tony Award-winning alphabet-tiled set. He’s also responsible for the appropriately academic British uniforms, as well as many other outlandishly colorful costumes, providing a nice contrast while saying so much about the characters, like the Wormwoods and the Acrobat and Escape Artist. Dennis Kelley’s delightfully wrought libretto, combined with Tim Minchin’s unique melodies and peppery lyrics (particularly his catchy anthem to childhood dreams, “When I Grow Up”) succinctly capture all the wit and satire of Roald Dahl’s dark novel. This deservedly awarded musical is a must-see family show that brings to life one of the author’s best-loved stories and, certainly, his greatest heroine.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 24-April 10 by Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at all Ticketmaster retail locations, at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, by calling the BIC Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com