In Matilda, and in most Roald Dahl books, the children are always much smarter than their adult counterparts. So I was immediately disappointed that director Matthew Warchus does not give children the benefit of the doubt in his musical adaptation of Matilda. He instead hits them over the head with a “this is funny” sledgehammer. As I explained to my daughter, when actors play over the top or grotesque characters, like Danny De Vito and Rhea Perlman did in the movie version, or as Bette Davis mastered in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” the actors play it straight. This gives the audience a reason to enjoy hating them. Gabriel Ebert as Mr. Wormwood was such a one dimensional, cartoonish fop that we didn’t for a moment ever think he was capable of doing any real damage to young Matilda. Now, I had seen Mr. Ebert in “Brief Encounter” on Broadway. He was outstanding. So this had to be a directorial choice to “dumb things down” for all the kiddies in the audience. All the actors suffered this same fate. Even Jill Paice, who I saw twice in “The 39 Steps” on Broadway, did not capture my attention as Miss Honey. She is lovely. She can sing. But her milquetoast character was more victim than heroine and we did not root for her comeuppance either.
Chris Hoch should have walked away with his role as the horrid, evil Miss Trunchbull. He clearly has the chops (and the legs) for it. But he is not supported by a good musical score. In Annie, Miss Hannigan has the hit “Little Girls,” which tells you immediately how she feels about her job and children in general. Miss Trunchbull has no such number; only one about her hammer-throwing championship of yesteryear. There are plenty of sight gags but Miss Trunchbull does not incite fear in anyone.
The theater before the curtain opens is charming. There are scrabble letters everywhere and my daughter and I had a jolly time finding all the hidden words. We were fourth row center and had wanted to see this play since we first heard about it. We anticipated loving it. Then, it began. The opening number is a song called “Miracle” that has nothing what so ever to do with the story. It just tells us we are about to see a play with a lot of children in it, which I think we all knew coming in. There is a balloon man and a party sequence that is totally unnecessary. A side plot involving a friendly librarian listening to Matilda’s fantastical fairy tales was also completely superfluous. The children were mostly fine but not outstanding. The music remained unremarkable.
At intermission, I looked at my daughter forlornly and said, “I don’t love this.” “I don’t love it either,” was her sad response. We were in 200 dollar seats.
The highlight of the second act was a visually stunning number, “When I Grow Up,” performed by the company on giant swings that seemed to fly into the audience. It was a genuinely creative and breathtaking three minutes. I was hoping for a little more when it came to Matilda’s telekinetic powers. They waited until the second act to use them at all and the climactic scene was rather underwhelming.
Lastly, the liberties taken with the story at the end made us both cringe. (SPOILER ALERT) Matilda saves the day by talking Russian to the mob that was going to off her family, she stays with Miss Honey and loses her powers because she didn’t need them anymore. Why deviate from an ending that was originally happy, child-friendly and completely satisfying? Mysterious and confusing to those of us who came to see the musical because we love the story.
There was one heartwarming moment for me, Paige Brady was making her debut the night we went to the show. It was her first time performing in front of a live audience. The director came on stage beforehand to inform us and to welcome her to the production. At the end of the play, the entire cast and the audience gave her a standing ovation. This little girl is 10 years old. She was beaming. I was moved more by that moment than anything I had witnessed on stage for the previous 2 hours.
For those 30 seconds, I was happy to be in the theater.