NEW YORK - No smart kid likes condescension. And any halfway clever mum or dad quickly figures out that the way to get a willful child, and they must all be willful, to love something is to pretend that they really should not like it all. That is, to a great extent, a manifestation of the gospel according to Roald Dahl, the cunning British literary satirist who disguised his moral lessons on the importance of education, books and human kindness within a delicious, kid-friendly embrace of bad behavior and anti-establishment trickery.
It was Dahl who invented Matilda, the spunky, over-achieving, proto-feminist, grrl-power heroine of what is far and away the best new musical of the Broadway season, indeed one of the best family-oriented shows of any season, and a work of musical theater that feels like a grand cultural experience in the tradition of the Royal Shakespeare Company (creators of the world premiere), and yet lands remarkably true to Dahl's off-centered heart in the way it understands both the value of silly stories and the vulnerability of children to adult cruelty.
Remarkably, Rob Howell's design palette both feels fresh and contemporary (and, for the record, cognizant of Hogwarts) and yet still makes you feel that the illustrations from the 1988 novel, including the ones drawn only in your head, have simply spring to three-dimensional life.
“Matilda the Musical,” the story of a gifted little girl with cruel parents and an even more cruel teacher, has lasers and acrobats and an ensemble cast of impossibly talented children (four girls share the title role) with open hearts and the collective spirit of revolutionaries. But its soul resides in Matilda's local library, presided over by the unselfish Chicago star Karen Aldridge, and its most remarkable moment does not arrive at the climax, when Matilda vanquishes her foes with the help of a Russian mafia ex-machina, but during a simple, gorgeous Tim Minchin song, “When I Grow Up.”
Therein, adults and children swing and play together in a park. And thanks in no small part to the astonishing choreography of Peter Darling — whose dazzling work in this piece recalls that of Steven Hoggett in “Once” in all except in its embrace of complexity — you sit there watching that beautiful number in tears for your own lost childhood and yet somehow newly aware that every child must want nothing so much as to grow up. Any parent with a pulse is turned into burned toast.
It's impossible to overstate the impact of the work of Darling (“Billy Elliot”), especially on the kid ensemble. You won't have seen choreography that draws so organically from the impulses of childhood movement, both pushing for athletic achievement and yet innately understanding that no kid worth her salt ever entirely conforms.
“Matilda,” which features a faithfully wrought and happily insouciant book by Dennis Kelly and that score, that remarkably rich, occasionally anthemic score by Minchin, has arrived on Broadway with a formidable West End pedigree. Its force and panache does not come as a surprise. One could nip at “Matilda’s” heels: the Broadway production, directed with great skill and a determined lack of sentimentality by Matthew Warchus, is a tad cool to the touch in spots. At the Tuesday show I saw, one craved a deeper present-tense emotional connection between the formidable Matilda du jour, Oona Laurence, and the overly cautious Lauren Ward, who plays Miss Honey, the kind of nervous teacher who represents Matilda's one real chance for being loved. Given the seismic force of the opposing performance of the deliciously malevolent Bertie Carvel, who plays the antagonist-in-drag Miss Trunchbull, an amalgam of every horrible teacher those of us subject to strict educational environments ever met, there is room for more sentiment. Dahl left that room. One must be in awe of Matilda and yet also ready to dry the tears she won't let flow.
But that is about the only reasonable complaint. Warchus' superb cast is remarkably deep in craft and talent — in what could be the throwaway role of Mr. Wormwood (married to Lesli Margherita's grotesque Mrs. Wormwood), Gabriel Ebert delivers a performance of quite astonishing comic complexity and theatrical prowess. Matilda's pathetic dad is a character whose world view is upended and yet who cannot quite change, and that's exactly what Ebert reveals, especially in his little concluding concession to Matilda, deeply moving in its very smallness.
At the international box office and in likely future long runs in Chicago and elsewhere, the key to the surely huge success of “Matilda” will be in its subtle linkage to the Harry Potter market (another franchise that never has shied from dispensing hard truths to kids), its batting on the side of the girl-nerds who soon will rule the world and not just according to Beyonce, and its reminder of how some of us are old enough to remember when schools did not embrace compassion and kindness. And very few of us had the guts or chops of Matilda and her pals. If only.
"Matilda" plays on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit matildathemusical.com.
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