Skip to content

REPOST: And a Child Should Lead Them

May 22, 2013

This review of Matilda the Musical from the New York Times sings praises for the show and highlights the elements present in this Off Broadway production that seemed to be lacking in many Broadway shows. Read more about it here: 

Image source: http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/theater/theaterspecial/matilda-the-musical-offers-good-advice.html?ref=theaterspecial&pagewanted=all

Image source: theater.nytimes.com

In a season when Broadway often seemed to be losing its mind and its mojo, the wisest advice came from a 5-year-old: “If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out/You don’t have to cry and you don’t have to shout!”

Those calming words were uttered — or sung, to be exact — by the title character and all-conquering hero of “Matilda the Musical,” which opened at the Shubert Theater in April to ecstatic reviews and ticket sales to match. When we first meet her, Matilda Wormwood, who was born in a 1988 children’s novel by Roald Dahl, is indeed stuck in a lonely and loveless life, hounded by stupid parents and the evil headmistress of her school.

But Matilda, to whom adversity has taught stoicism, does not scream. Nor does she get all excited and throw her body around the stage in a frantic bid for attention. She doesn’t even sing one of those sympathy-demanding ballads of desperation that her older kin in conventional book musicals are prone to at such moments.

Instead, she determines to rewrite her life, to fix whatever is stupid and repellent and abrasive in it. And though it turns out she possesses telekinetic powers, like Stephen King’s Carrie, she doesn’t really need them. She has more powerful tools on her side, in which she trusts unconditionally: intelligence and imagination. The same might be said of the show in which she appears, a British import brought to life by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Many of the rest of the productions that opened on Broadway in the past year did not share Matilda’s faith in rationality and inventiveness. You might say that they were stuck in old claustrophobic stories that were choking the life out of them. These included cynical narratives in which the presence of a movie star (Jessica Chastain, Scarlett Johansson, Katie Holmes) is thought to guarantee a happy ending. Or tales (hello, “Pippin”!) in which an intrepid show slays ‘em in the aisles by making lots of noise and looks flashy.

In support of this point of view, allow me to introduce another of the resident philosophers in “Matilda.” That’s Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s mother and a trophy-winning competitive ballroom dancer. Here’s what she has to say, in a number entitled “Loud”: “The less you have to sell, the harder you sell it.” And: “What you know matters less/Than the volume with which what you don’t know’s expressed.”

Quite a nice little couplet, isn’t it? It’s courtesy of Tim Minchin, the show’s songwriter and the member of a team, which notably includes the director Matthew Warchus and the book writer Dennis Kelly, that steadily ignores Mrs. Wormwood’s counsel.

“Matilda” may occasionally suffer from the Broadway bête noire of overamplification (or so I’ve been told by several distressed theatergoing correspondents). But at heart it is anything but loud. Its components have been assembled with a quiet confidence rooted in the belief that nothing projects as clearly as an unswervingly sustained melody.

By that I don’t mean that “Matilda” lacks variety, musically or otherwise. On the contrary, it is always balancing light and darkness, sincerity and satire, reassurance and scariness. But at a moment when many Broadway shows seem to consist of jimmied-together mismatched parts, “Matilda” is remarkably of a piece. Designed by Rob Howell, with lighting by Hugh Vanstone, it lays out its elements of style for all to see from the beginning.

Audiences arriving at the Shubert are greeted by an uncurtained stage filled with letter-bearing blocks, outsized versions of what you might find on a nursery floor, and a seeming infinity of bookcases. When I first saw “Matilda” in London last year, I was accompanied by a novelist who gasped when she first saw the set and murmured, “This is every writer’s dream.”

I know what she means. The set is a challenge and a teeming sea of potential, from which both the show’s creators and its leading character must extract meaning and substance. From letters come words, from which come sentences, from which come stories, which if you retain control of them can transform lives.

Manipulating stories, and giving them flesh (and song), is the task of both “Matilda” and Matilda, and their endeavors run parallel. Matilda (who is played in rotation by four young actresses) is a storyteller par excellence on several levels. She not only devises ingenious fibs to deflect browbeating grown-ups around her but also relates intricate narratives that turn her dreary life into rich fantasy.

These stories are folded into and propel the larger story that is “Matilda.” Throughout it, Matilda’s fellow students (who are choreographed with sly genius by Peter Darling) help push those building-block letters into scene-setting formations, so that the tellers and the tale become one. The fantasy stories that Matilda delivers (about a married pair of circus acrobats) to an enchanted local librarian are given increasingly elaborate life, from mere silhouettes to puppets to half-glimpsed people.

Matilda’s nemesis is Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress of her school and the angry antithesis of the precocious little girl in her care. The Trunchbull, as her students refer to her, is a former hammer-throwing champion of Britain and a rigid fascist who believes in the power of might and circumscribing rules. In another show, she would most likely be rendered as a screeching, crowd-pandering caricature.

But in this production the Trunchbull is played by Bertie Carvel, a man who avoids every pitfall of drag performance. This hunched, sibilant giant has stepped straight out of children’s nightmares, dreamscapes in which quotidian fears assume monstrous forms.

The Trunchbull rarely raises her voice, by the way; she knows that far more menace can be packed into a calm caressing tone that verges on a whisper. “Matilda” intelligently accords a soupçon of sympathy to this devil, just enough to let grown-ups identify with her fleetingly, and shudder.

This show is also well aware that in the real world Trunchbulls usually aren’t sent packing; they continue to inhabit high perches of power in all professions. “Matilda” never pretends that this planet is other than a darker and scarier place than any child could imagine. Mr. Minchin’s music reflects that; even its perkiest numbers have a gothic undertow of anxiety.

I keep hearing from adults who say they cried during the show’s most conventionally pretty number. It is called “When I Grow Up,” and in it, Matilda’s schoolmates sing of a time when they’ll be strong enough to carry the burdens forced upon them and to flush out monsters from under the bed. Grown-ups know that some burdens crush even the broadest shoulders, that there will always some kind of monster to worry about, and that happy endings are at best only provisional.

“Matilda” allows us a glance of a darker and more realistic alternative to the conclusion it finally leaves us with. But it doesn’t linger on it.

The great advantage of being your own author is that you get to choose your own ending. If you’re talented enough, like the creators of “Matilda,” you can even make the rest of the world believe for one enchanted moment that happy endings come true.

Hi! I’m Loius P. Habash, an actor and a lover of the performing arts. I share more of my thoughts and the reviews I find interesting on this Facebook page.

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: