When I first got to see ‘Matilda the Musical’ last year in London, I was completely blown away by how smart the whole production was; everything from the book by Dennis Kelly to the songs by Tim Minchin based on Roald Dahl’s beloved novel, to the direction of Matthew Warchus and the stage design of Rob Howell, and the spectacular performances from the cast that had as many children as there were grown-ups. Glorious is the word I would use. It’s an intelligent adaptation that presented a piece of work for children that didn’t dumb itself down.
The amazing thing about this musical is that it posits that children have the capacity already to call out what is wrong in the world and that if we empower them, they are instruments of positive change. Through its main character, the wondrous miracle that is Matilda, the play subversively comments on helicopter parents and those that stifle children’s imaginations, curiosity, and their thirst for knowledge. The play also attacks parents who are cruel to their children.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring cast that is currently staging ‘Matilda the Musical’ at The Theater at Solaire has brought with them all the magic from the West End production I saw in London. The children are a lot older than the cast that I saw and what they lack in finesse they make up with a lot of passion and energy. Two kids were singing, almost out of breath, early on in Act One because they were giving it their all from the get go.
It’s what makes ‘Matilda the Musical’ such a beautiful show. It demands from the children as much, if not more, as the adult performers. Each performer has to work in the whimsical, almost diabolical humor befitting into a Roald Dahl world but still ground it with the real-world issues that the play tackles. While the cruel parents of Matilda, played by Claire Taylor and Stephen Jubber do have a tendency to push too much to the level of overzealous camp, many of the children are just right.
On the evening I caught, Zoe Modlinne played Matilda (with alternates Zara Yazbek Polito and Sofia Poston) who was all-power and unwavering fire. Matilda practically carries the whole play on her back and so much is demanded upon the young actress in the role but Modlinne powered through with a strength that reached all the way to the balcony.
And this is the most essential part of the play.
Yes, ‘Matilda the Musical’ is already a spectacle with Howell’s ingenious set design that allows Warchus to direct quick transitions between scenes and for choreographer Peter Darling to create some amazing dance numbers involving climbing a gate, standing on school desks, a funny physical education number, and the absolutely chilling Act Two opener ‘When I Grow Up’ with swings.
But what makes ‘Matilda the Musical’ so endearing is how it takes the wondrous child Matilda and puts her in situations that forces her to stand up and fight back without sacrificing that very thing that makes her a child. Yes, her parents are hateful boors and she ends up in a school with an even crueler principal in the form of Miss Trunchbull who calls children “maggots” and “revolting.” They do not frighten Matilda because she’s smart and she’s smart because she reads.
But even with all that knowledge, she still looks for affection and validation. Amongst her adult friends, she still lies about how she’s treated by her parents to the librarian Mrs. Phelps because, as a child, it would be embarrassing to admit. Especially when Mrs. Phelps admires her so much.
On the flipside, it’s wonderful how in ‘Matilda the Musical’ the children have the power to rebel and reclaim Trunchbull’s insult of ‘revolting’ as a point of pride but the play also shows us that good adults can be afraid like the supportive teacher Miss Honey, who is wonderfully played by Haley Flaherty. She really brings out the heart of the show -- because Matilda is such a cerebral spitfire that the majority of the vulnerability comes from Miss Honey -- and she nails her solo ‘My House’ which works as a song about contentment with the simple things in life but it also doubles as an admission of defeat.
Again, these are the paradoxes and ironies that fill the show and even though the show is so smart it is still so enjoyable for people of all ages.
And for every great hero, there is a great villain and Miss Trunchbull is elevated to Matilda’s level by the pitch perfect Hayden Tee (who was also Trunchbull in the London show I saw). His Trunchbull is menacing and evil and Tee is unafraid to be a terrorizing force on stage while seamlessly managing the singing and the physicality of the role.
The staging by Matthew Warchus of ‘Matilda the Musical’ coupled with the incredible work of Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin is really musical theater at its best. It’s creative and smart and entertaining and touching and funny all at the same time. This is something one shouldn’t miss.
Matilda the Musical will be running until March 22 at The Theatre at Solaire.