Tag Archives: Tim Minchin

“Matilda” Is Less Sweet and More Abrasive at ImaginOn

Review:  Matilda The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

The time lag between what opens on Broadway and what tours at Belk Theater has narrowed in recent years. Likewise, the gap between when the tour comes through town and when local companies get their hands on Broadway properties has also shrunk. With the arrival of Matilda The Musical at ImaginOn last weekend just two years after it played Belk Theater, it became apparent that CPCC Summer Theatre, Theatre Charlotte, or Children’s Theatre can expect to mount Broadway hits that are just as fresh from their New York runs as the off-Broadway sensations that Actor’s Theatre brings us.

Even with this slimmer interval, I fear that Roald Dahl‘s Matilda isn’t aging gracefully as a children’s story at McColl Family Theatre. It returns a bit awkwardly in a year when children are cruelly and inhumanely seized as pawns to discourage asylum seekers from Latin America. You might feel more comfortable with this story than I did just two days after I’d watched a Supreme Court nominee opt for yelling and indignation as his go-to defenses against credible accusations of sexual assault in sworn testimony on Capitol Hill.

I’m not sure which aspect of the Saturday afternoon performance disturbed me more. Was it director Adam Burke and his star, Tommy Foster, conniving to make the evil Miss Trunchbull more realistic than she had been in 2016; or was it the parents in the audience, bringing their anklebiters to the show and ignoring recommendations that it was suitable for 6-and-up? I was surprised – and slightly reassured – when so many stayed after intermission but not at all shocked when the adults sitting next to us fled.

Foster had some comical tricks up his beefy sleeves as the hammer-throwing harridan, turning a couple of unexpected cartwheels and almost executing a split. But Trunchbull’s implacable cruelty sometimes verged on rabid, when she unveiled all the “chokey” dungeons reserved for misbehaving and disobedient students at her school or when she pulled the ears of one cowering student about a foot away from his head. Neat technical effects, but perhaps too realistic for comfort.

Dahl wrote his Matilda in 1988, a decade before Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events took off – and before some of the edgier “anti” musicals like Urinetown began to invade Broadway. So his macabre sensibility here became more and more in tune with the times. With all its demonic cogs and gears, HannaH Crowell’s set design (fiendishly augmented by Kelly Colburn’s projections) brought home to me how Dahl’s sensibility had morphed during the quarter of a century following Willy Wonka and his iconic chocolate factory. Nothing particularly sweet here.

Matilda Wormwood certainly had more natural talents and gifts than Charlie Bucket, who snagged the lucky ticket to meet Wonka and taste his chocolate wonders. She is a precocious reader, which disgusts her dimwit parents and astounds Miss Honey, her timorous first grade teacher. As a storyteller, she holds the local librarian spellbound. Pitted against the fearsome, sadistic Trunchbull, Matilda turns out to have a combination of psychic and telekinetic powers that bring her victory – wielded with a sly naughtiness.

You need more than Orphan Annie pluck to play this role, and Allie Joseph has it. She nails Matilda’s signature solos, “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up,” and she sparkles in the spotlight – Colburn’s projections going wild behind – telling her four part “Acrobat Story” to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. There’s a touch a grim determination in Joseph’s naughtiness that nicely counterbalances the added malignity that Foster brings to Trunchbull. Without too much suspension of disbelief, Joseph also passes for a first grader.

Also supplying counterweight to Trunchbull’s regimentation and brutality are Matilda’s other tormentors, her nutball parents. Caleb Sigmon gets to do the heavier comedy lifting as Mr. Wormwood, loudly dressed by costume designer Magda Guichard, victimized by Matilda’s vicious pranks, and cuckolded by his wife. A crooked used car salesman way beyond his depth in attempting to hoodwink Russian mobsters, Matilda’s dad deserves every indignity that comes his way, especially when he tears up his daughter’s library book. Yet Sigmon retains a wonderful energy amid all Dad’s atrocities, vicissitudes and cluelessness.

Wrapped up in her competitive ballroom dancing – and her sleazy partner Rudolpho (the lithe Paul Montagnese) – Matilda’s mom doesn’t realize she’s nine months pregnant with an unwanted second child when Matilda is born. That’s a high level of stupidity to sustain, but Lucianne Hamilton is more than equal to the task as Mrs. Wormwood, particularly when she schools Miss Honey on her philosophy of education.

Absorbing this lecture as well as Miss Trunchbull’s tirade, Miss Honey earns the right to sing “Pathetic” as her signature song, yet Bailey Rose builds Honey’s strength on stoical acceptance and self-awareness, her warmth toward Matilda counting for far more than her passivity. More comical appreciation comes from Janeta Jackson as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who listens so raptly to Matilda’s acrobat saga.

Dennis Kelly‘s adaptation of Dahl’s novel is admirably intricate and well-crafted, but I find myself less impressed with Tim Minchin‘s music and lyrics, which might be more palatable with the vitality of Annie or the wit of Avenue Q. You still need to listen – carefully – to the cast album to decipher what the kids’ choruses are singing. Whether the older kids are rattling their cages in welcoming the first-graders on their first day or Matilda’s class is celebrating victory over Trunchbull, the music sounds a bit savage, as if Annie and her fellow orphans were on a bad acid trip. The transition from Belk Theater to the smaller McColl seemed to augment the abrasiveness.

Yet some of Matilda’s classmates do distinguish themselves. Calvin Jia-Hao Mar is consistently adorable as Nigel, who spends much of his time cowering or fainting whether or not Trunchbull is persecuting him. Ryan Campos is a more formidable martyr as the heroic Bruce, a young glutton who steals a piece of Trunchbull’s chocolate cake and is forced to eat the whole thing as his punishment. And though I can’t tell you why we’re bothered with Matilda’s best friend Lavender, Jeannie Ware made her charmingly self-important when we returned from intermission.

Dahl’s “Matilda”: Don’t Mess With Mr. In-Between

By Perry Tannenbaum

We expect a fabulist like Roald Dahl to exaggerate and push reality to extremes, and so it is in Matilda the Musical, Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of Dahl’s book for second-graders-and-up with music by Tim Minchin. Parents either adore their offspring to the point of absurdity, creating a universe where all children are exceptional, or they’re like Matilda’s Mom and Dad, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, disdainful toward all her prodigious gifts.

Pity is, Dahl’s book was written in 1988, when middle-of-the-roaders ruled the political scene and moderation was a virtue. Dahl was outré back then. But now in a country besotted by the ideas that government can accomplish what is mathematically impossible and that government is an evil that should do nothing whatsoever, Dahl’s exaggerations nearly pale into realism. Adults really are that crazy.

Children who are this bright, luminous, and innocent have walked through such harrowing worlds before. Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie may be considered as Matilda’s true ancestors in literature, pop culture, and hit Broadway musicals. Amid the Fagins, the Miss Hannigans, and the Bill Sikeses, there’s always a kindly Nancy or a Grace Farrell to shine rays of hope and sunshine into the gloom. Here it’s Matilda’s first-grade teacher, Miss Honey, who lives under the thumb of the school’s horrific headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.

With the aid of outlandish costumes, the elder Wormwoods will still seem outré to the small fry in the audience, even in 2016. For the rest of us, their disdain for books and their faith in TV as an educational tool are sufficient markers. Dahl hasn’t pushed far enough, however, until he has Dad – a supreme creation of moronic conceit – insisting that Matilda is a boy from the moment she’s born, despite the evidence of her genitalia.

Nor does Dahl mess with nuance when it comes to Trunchbull. The headmistress is a former Olympic medalist in the indelicate sport of the hammer throw, and she revels so much in cruelly punishing unruly students she has designed a torture chamber expressly for that demented purpose. The preternaturally sized harridan is portrayed by the fiercely outsized David Abeles, and even he is augmented by mammaries that runneth over any cups in the county.

The frightfulness of Trunchbull and the blithe disregard of her used-car-salesman dad won’t faze any of the kids who have been baptized in Lemony Snicket, but that really isn’t the worst of this touring production’s baggage. Even on the second night of the run at Belk Theater, most of the kids were unintelligible. You’ll hear them, but what they’re saying is only fitfully comprehensible. The Observer’s review points out that printed copies of the lyrics are available in the street-level lobby, a less practical solution than supertitles when you’re sitting there in the dimly lit theater.

I caught up with the lyrics in the booklet that accompanies the Broadway cast album, which helped me to further appreciate the clever recitation of the alphabet when we reached the “School Song,” circling back to Matilda’s first day at Crunchem Hall Primary School. Even the first part of this song worked for me on a visceral level when I saw the unintelligible elder students scaling the gate to the school like caged animals and snarling at the newcomers about to enter. Yeah, that first day can be scary.

I’m assuming that the Broadway success of Matilda gives the lie to my contention that the show takes too much time to accomplish too little. Compared to the new School of Rock, which we’d seen nearly nine weeks earlier, my wife Sue and I found the kids onstage here less talented – and less molded into a genuine class by evening’s end. Three of Matilda’s classmates briefly pop into the spotlight at various moments, but there’s little rapport developing in the group, let alone camaraderie.

Sitting in the cozier 1460-seat Shubert Theatre in New York, I’d imagine we would have heard the darling children more easily. The lighting is also presumably better up yonder. I could hardly make out a word on Miss Honey’s blackboard in Act 1, which ultimately diminishes the impact of the denouement after intermission.

Three young actresses play the title role, compared with the four who share that responsibility on Broadway, but for some yet-to-be-explained reason Savannah Grace Elmer took over for Sarah McKinley Austin when the curtain rose Tuesday evening on Act 2. Both brought the requisite precocity to the table with a certain amount of British starchiness, just the thing for protagonists trapped in gray primary school uniforms.

So the grownups outshine the kids, cartoonish as most of the important ones are. Looming like an epic soldier from the Trojan War, Abeles is discombobulated enough by little Matilda’s defiance to make “The Trunchbull” a tasty villain. Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfield as the Wormwoods have even less rapport with each other than Matilda’s classmates, bickering at those rare moments when they even acknowledge one another. Both are loudly colorful in Rob Howell’s costume designs and compete spiritedly for the edge in comical cluelessness.

It’s hard to say whether Stephen Diaz added more to Mom’s stupidity credentials or Dad’s as the mega-sleazy Rudolpho, Mrs. W’s competitive dance partner. Dad seems perfectly oblivious to their sensual tango rehearsals while Mom must miss a competition because a hospital physician informs her that she’s nine months pregnant.

The consoling women in Matilda’s life don’t offer the poor waif much in the way of guidance and wisdom. Obviously, the teacher is sweet: Miss Honey quietly defies The Trunchbull’s disciplinarian philosophy in her classroom, and Jennifer Blood strikes the right balance of timidity and righteousness when she meekly stands up to Trunchbull, advocating on behalf of her own humane pedagogy and Matilda’s special gifts. Ora Jones as Mrs. Phelps, the library lady, is a warm Gypsy-like sounding board for Matilda and a refuge from her absurdly broken home.

Phelps encourages Matilda to spin the story that will ultimately be her salvation. That’s what I like most about Matilda, for Dahl’s story-within-the-story turns out to be a miracle of rare device.