Matilda is a musical that believes in the power of words. A Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered on Broadway in 2013, its Tony-winning book celebrates story-telling while mocking the forces of anti-intellectualism and the kind of education that favors discipline over imagination.
Too bad, then, that in the touring production now at the Straz, the words are often unintelligible — and that a show that argues against brutalizing children often feels kind of brutal itself, despite some charming performances, athletic choreography and an ingenious set.
Matilda is based on the 1988 children's book of the same name by Roald Dahl, the mordantly comic mind behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which children are subject to all kinds of tortures for their sins. So it's no surprise that our heroine, little Matilda, is beset by bullies, in particular her aggressively unloving parents and the tyrant who runs her school, Miss Agatha Trunchbull. Kids love the catharsis of seeing evil, grown-up ogres get their comeuppance, especially when it's a child who takes them down. That's what happens here, as Matilda finds devious ways to sabotage the adults who want to thwart her from living up to her awesome potential. A precocious child who likes reading Dostoevsky (in the original Russian) as much as Dr. Seuss, she finds an ally in a sweet, supportive teacher, Miss Honey, and with the help of her classmates (and some special skills even she didn't realize she had), she leads the way to a triumph for "Revolting Children," the show's big finale.
But boy, it takes a loooong time for her revenge to take shape. And it seems longer here because for a good part of the time one is straining to hear what's being sung and spoken on stage, particularly by the younger members of the cast. For some reason, the director seems to have encouraged the children to e-nun-ci-ate ev-er-y syl-la-ble. Or perhaps the kids are just trying over-hard to get their British accents right. Whatever the reason, the result is a halting delivery which interrupts the flow of the story; at one point, Matilda lapses into conversational Russian, and it's almost easier to understand than her English. It doesn't help that, at various points when Matilda is entertaining her friend the librarian with a story about a doomed acrobat (a story that becomes a crucial plot point later on), the characters she's conjuring up step into the action and speak in muddily-miked unison with the little girl.
The physical production — the set and lighting also won Tonys — is enchanting, making clever use of intersecting alphabet blocks. The choreography is exhilarating, too, with a distinctly calisthenic edge. Performers climb the school gates like a jungle gym, clamber onto swings, and execute some pretty amazing tumbling routines (Miss Trunchbull included).
The children in the cast, audibility issues aside, are talented singers and movers. The part of Matilda is played alternately by three actresses; on press night, the role was taken by nine-year-old Lily Brooks O'Briant, an appealing moppet who gets Matilda's steely determination just right. Ryan Christopher Dever as Bruce, her cake-loving (to a fault) classmate, steals scenes with aplomb — particularly in the finale. Among the adults, Jennifer Blood is sweet without being saccharine as the teacher who stands up to Trunchbull, and Quinn Mattfield is hilariously on point as Matilda's contemptuous dad, an unapologetically crass car dealer in a garish green plaid suit. His obsession with his coiffure — "A man's hair is his greatest asset!" — and tendency to call others "Stupid!" may remind you of another, currently (if inexplicably) popular salesman.
The chief villain of the piece, Miss Trunchbull, is played here, as in the Broadway and RSC productions, by a man, but the character transcends gender. Trunchbull is a brownshirt with enormous bazooms, a former champion hammer thrower who calls her young charges "maggots" and delights in fiendish punishments like twirling a little girl around by her ponytails and heaving her into space, hammer-style (a particularly impressive special effect). Daniel Abeles gets her fascist strut down pat, taking all-too-credible relish in smashing the children's spirits. But, and I'm not sure if this is the writing or the performance, I found her non-stop iniquity finally more wearying than amusing.
Still, you've got to love a script that skewers the anti-intellectualism Trunchbull's character embodies. That point is acutely made in "Loud," in which Matilda's mom (Cassie Silva), even trashier than her dad, tries to teach Miss Honey a lesson: "What you know matters less than the volume with which what you don't know's expressed! Content has never been less important. So you have got to be … Loud! A little less fact! A lot more feel!"
So, yes, Matilda has more than retained its relevance. Whether it fully retains the magic that first won over audiences and critics remains to be seen.