On Tuesday night I had a bit of a treat. Something I’d been looking forward to for years and years was finally within my grasp. You see, a couple years ago my opera singer friend Meredith went to a performance of a musical in Stratford-on-Avon and came back to the States saying it was the best darn thing she’d ever seen. And she sees a LOT of theater. Not long after that Monica Edinger attended a performance of the same show in London and reported that she was thoroughly amused. The musical was, of course, Matilda based on the novel by Roald Dahl and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then, not long ago, the Penguin Young Readers offered some lucky schmucks in New York City a chance to see the show’s second night in previews. And one of those schmucks? This guy.
First off, we lucked out weather wise. You might feel good and virtuous freezing your tuchis when there’s a show to be seen, but you can’t really enjoy it. Fortunately the weather was mild and it was easy to find my crew. Stacy Dillon from Welcome to My Tweendom was there as well as Roxanne Feldman from fairrosa, Monica Edinger from Educating Alice, Jenny Brown from Shelf Awareness, and a whole host of other folks. Penguin gave us each a ticket as well as a copy of their new paperback edition of Matilda. I didn’t notice at the time, but if you flip to the back of the book (which sports the musical’s poster as its cover) there are written sections by playwright Dennis Kelly and composer Tim Minchin that are great and really put the book and the show in context.
Inside we found our seats and faced a stage that looked like nothing so much as what you would get if you force fed a Scrabble game LSD. Imagine squares of letters exploding in a kind of mini Big Bang with the stage at the center of the explosion. There was little time to take it in before the director walked on. That’s usually a bad sign. Directors don’t tend to walk on stages. They lurk in the shadows like that guy in A Chorus Line. But this one, a Mr. Matthew Warchus it was, came on like it was the most natural thing in the world. He reminded us that this was just the second preview and because of the complexity of the mechanics in the stage, things could go a bit wonky from time to time. When that happened they would simply fix the problem and then continue with the show. As it happens, his warning was completely unnecessary, but at the time it was good foresight.
Now admittedly I hadn’t re-read the book in the last five years or so. I joked with folks before the show that I might have a hard time following out the plot now, but honestly I just wanted to have something to compare to what I was seeing. I never saw the Mara Wilson movie version either, to be honest, though I’m aware it’s a cult favorite.
Right off the bat you are plunged into the show bodily. The world’s most acutely trained cast of child actors, with believable British accents firmly in place (now that the Broadway musical of Mary Poppins is closing it’s good to see that children’s speaking like Brits will continue to take up theater space unabated) proceeded to perform a tightly constructed and perfectly choreographed opening number called “Miracle”. It’s a helicopter parent song and bridged Dahl’s 1988 text to the modern day. It also allows Matilda to come on a sing a single line that breaks your heart and makes her sympathetic right from the get-go.
I should mention that when Mr. Warchus, the Director, gave his little pre-curtain speech he declared that he was under the distinct impression that his show contained the youngest actress to ever headline a Broadway show in the history of Broadway itself. As such, the role is played by a different girl, one of four, each night. We were getting Ms. Sophia Gennusa in what must have been her Broadway debut performance. Sophia had never been on a Broadway stage prior to that night, and her only theatrical background was Purchase College’s Conservatory of Dance’s production of The Nutcracker. You never would have known, though. She blew the roof off the house and was good from start to finish. Not one flub. Not one mistake. A pro to her bones.
Let’s break this review up with a couple clips. Here’s the American TV spot for the show:
As the show went on I found that all the performers were actually quite amazing. It didn’t hurt matters any that the woman playing Miss Honey and the man playing Miss Trunchbull (a role that won him an Olivier Award) were from the London performances (and Trunchbull had actually created the role back in Stratford-on-Avon!). The fellow playing Mr. Wormwood was particularly excellent as well. He had a distinctly Dick Van Dyke quality to him, and the costume designers seemed to take extra care to highlight is extraordinarily long and agile legs. Mrs. Wormwood felt like nothing so much as an escapee from The Real Housewives of Brixton.
It was when I noticed Mr. Wormwood’s costume, and how closely it adhered to the one in the Quentin Blake illustrations to Matilda, that I did a bit of comparing and contrasting. Mrs. Trunchbull too may as well have walked off the pages of the book, though Bertie Carvell (the actor) gave her this extraordinary combination of barely restrained (or not restrained at all) insanity and tiny girlish quirks. If they ever turn the Harry Potter books into a musical I nominate him to play Dolores Umbridge. That was sort of what he was going with here, only with a LOT more scenery chewing. The silliness combined with the true frights meant that Carvell could terrorize the kids in the audience as much as the ones on stage and get away with it.
Honestly, if I had seen the show at seven it would have frightened me to death. I was the kid that couldn’t take it when Violet Beauregard turned into a blueberry in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. So imagine how I would have reacted to descriptions of Trunchbull’s “The Chokey” (which, for some bizarre reason, poor Bruce Bogtrotter got sent to after his triumphant sequence), or the (briefly) scary upper classmen. No, this is a show for the 9 and up crowd, I think. They’ll be the ones that get the most out of it. Particularly the special effects.
Because you see, dear readers, I didn’t really expect the show would allow Trunchbull to grab a girl by the pigtails and whirl her into the air. Oh me of little faith. Lord knows what harness was attached to that little girl’s hair. Whatever it might be it is a wonder of mechanics, and the moment was complete with a fake dummy worth of Monty Python plummeting back down to earth. Other special effects wow just as much (there’s one at the end that caused the audience to burst into sporadic applause), giving the whole evening a rather joyous feel.
Here are some clips from the Brits, but it looks the same as what I saw:
And then there’s the music itself. Very clever lyrics with honestly catchy songs. As I was leaving the theater I think I may have made some off-handed comment about the fact that the songs were great but the only one I left humming was the one that they sang during the bows. That was before I woke up the next morning to find myself singing two others. You can’t help but love songs with double meanings like the oh-so appropriately named “Revolting Children” sung by the children themselves. One of my favorites, as it turned out, was a song Miss Trunchbull sings in the second act called “The Smell of Rebellion”. It begins normally enough and then at one point turns into a Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds-esque vault into true wacked out weirdness, complete with references to a dwarf and a multi-colored light show. And any show the dares to get strange and goofy has my utmost confidence.
Here’s one of the songs, actually. It’s the song that comes right before Matilda discovers her powers:
The musical is officially going to premier at the Schubert Theatre in April of this year, if you’re at all interested. And you can read Monica’s write-up of the night here.
There are actually loads of cool videos out there, most of them of the British version of the show (which seems to be quite similar to the American).
There’s this preview trailer:
This look at one of the dance sequences in rehearsal (the music playing sounds like a muzak version of the actual song):
And an interview with playwright Dennis Kelly and composer Tim Minchin.
Here’s the song “Naughty” (the one you’ll be hearing in auditions across the country instead of “Tomorrow” from Annie or “Castle on a Cloud” from Les Miserables):
And here are various New Yorkers talking about it alongside the show’s creators, in terms of the book itself:
A big kiss and thank you to Penguin Young Readers for giving me this glimpse into what is clearly going to be an epic little show here in the States. And to Monica too for the photo of myself with the book and ticket which I stole off of her site.