Friday, April 19, 2013

REVIEW: Matilda

Review of the Saturday, April 13 evening performance at the Shubert Theatre in New York City, New York.  Starring Milly Shapiro, Bertie Carvel, Gabriel Ebert, Lesli Margherita and Lauren Ward.  Book by Dennis Kelly.  Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin.  Orchestrations and Additional Music by Chris Nightingale.  Choreography by Peter Darling.  Direction by Matthew Warchus.  2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission.

Grade: A+

It is rare, in my opinion, that a Broadway show ever lives up to its hype, but even as I entered the Shubert Theatre the other night, I had a feeling Matilda might just do that.  The far-reaching set - all the way from floor to ceiling and from proscenium all the way to the edge of the mezzanine - designed by Rob Howell and brightly lit by Hugh Vanstone tells us immediately that we are entering the world of child.  Everything is covered with blocks, with one letter or blank edge sticking out in a hodgepodge that all at once suggests the playfulness and intelligence of a small child.  As the colorfully lit blocks on swings tell us, this is Matilda's space, then, much like those "magical pictures" that change what you see the more you stare it, so, too, does this ingenious setting reveal secrets about the title character; the blocks, upon closer scrutiny reveal words, some simple, others complex, and all of which come into play throughout the story.  That same space (and its lighting) morphs from general area to a cramped home (everything and everyone in it remains within the confines of a lit circle) to the prison-like gate of a creepy, dangerous and overwhelming primary school to a stark classroom to a large, strikingly simple, yet somehow beautiful library.  The transformation from locale to locale is often a striking combination of technology and exciting cast movement.  How often can you say that the scene changes are part of the magic of the show?

In keeping with the notion that we are witnessing events from the perspective of 5 year old Matilda herself, Howell has been careful create varying perspectives - to Matilda, her home is a cramped cage she is stuck in, so everything about those scenes is cramped, the furniture, the tight zeroing in of the lighting, not to mention the claustrophobic staging of those scenes by director Matthew Warchus.  Similarly, when little Matilda experiences something new and larger than life, those things are proportionally enormous.  The school room is dominated by rigid rows of large student desks, while the chalkboard  takes up a good portion of the upstage wall.  We see it as she does.  The desks make the kids in her class look even smaller; the rigid lines tell her and us right away that she - a genius and "out-of-the-box" wunderkind - will struggle here with her creativity.  She sees the headmistress as a giant, with enormous shoulders, a shrill, commanding voice, and a penchant for terrorizing her charges into submission. It is no wonder that this headmistress is disproportionately huge from the point where Matilda's head ends, and the rest of the headmistress continues!  The only modicum of "normality" in terms of design, staging, and performance is when there is something or someone that Matilda reads as honest and good, like her librarian friend, Mrs. Phelps (take away the "P" and what do you get?) or her very caring teacher, Miss Honey, who is honestly that sweet.

Everyone and everything else in the world of Matilda is to the extreme, from the first strains of what a 5 year-old must think of as an overture - out of tune cacophony, then all of a sudden a tuneful song.  All of the dancing, created by Peter Darling is a crazy mix of kinetic yoga, rigid exercise, and a slick, unencumbered self-awareness.  (Imagine the cast of Spring Awakening as kindergartners!)  And when the adults dance, it is more traditional, but on a much larger scale; the result is laugh-til-your-gut-hurts Latin Ballroom dancing by a leggy, big busted woman (a hooker-ish Barbie doll, maybe, that happens to also be Matilda's mother) and her heavily accented partner, Rudolpho (the leggy and uber-sexy Phillip Spaeth), with a giant smile, an impossibly hairy chest "down to there," and moves that involve leg extensions and splits that would render most of us hip-less by evening's end.  Howell's costumes are equally in synch with the perspective concept - the kids costumes are realistic, the adults are hyper-exaggerated, and the elaborate fantasy sequences - where Matilda tells the phenomenal tale of the Acrobat and Escapologist and their quest for final glory and a child of their own - are full of stunning, sparkly costumes and visual illusions (designed by Paul Kieve) that make you get all goose-pimply.  Not since The Lion King has the coming together of all the design elements fit so perfectly, and with such truly theatrical stage magic.  What Warchus and his design team have created here is an ever growing series of stunning images and creative staging - most of which would not transfer to film very well - and remain fully in the realm of live presentation to add to their "wow factor."

Having said all of that and having sung all of those praises, what separates this from many Broadway spectacles is that what is truly magical about all of this is that Matilda could be done in the style of Chicago with minimal scenery and a few costumes and props, and would still have the same impact.  At its heart, Matilda is a story of wonder and normality, fear and triumph, and the reawakening of the inner-child in all of us.  It reminds us, ultimately, that the world can be dark and scary for sure, but nothing lights up that world like the wide-eyed wonder and innocence of a child.  Of course, much of the credit for that goes to the late great children's author, Roald Dahl, the man who specialized in down on their luck children overcoming incredible odds to make their - and our - world a better place.  (He's the guy who brought the world Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach among others.)  But you don't really get much better than this stage adaptation - a tight, but enormously packed book - by Dennis Kelly, and the eclectically tuneful score by Tim Minchin.  Together they have brought this wondrous tale to larger-than-life glory.  Mr. Minchin, in particular, has written a score so diverse in sound and tenor that it is indescribable  - each song perfectly for the moment, then gone like a magic trick.  And he has done what I was starting to think couldn't be done.  He has written lyrics for characters that are five to twelve years old with an appropriate and, more importantly, realistic-for-the-age vocabulary.  Don't get me wrong - there is emotional content, subtext and meaning to spare.  His opening number, "Miracle," is a stunner, incorporating bratty kids, polite children, snooty adults and loving parents.  He shows abundant comic finesse with the ballroom dance number, "Loud," and the poignant opposite, "Quiet," an aria for a child who craves understanding and stability.  And there is the tears-in-your-eyes beautiful simplicity of "When I Grow Up," a look at what once was and how far we've come for the adults in the audience.  And there is the mini-opera mega-scene, "The Smell of Rebellion," where the heroes and the villains square off to the finish: if the good guys win, school can be a place of safety, warmth and learning; if the bad guys win, it is off to that evil never land, THE CHOKEY, where no one comes back the same.

The cast, from smallest role to the leading lady, is uniformly superb, each with a deft understanding of what it is to embrace larger-than-life parody, and skating right to the edge of "overdone" without going over.  The adult ensemble gets some really juicy bits, playing one scene as parental types, the next as the oldest children in the primary school, and all of them (Tamika Sonja Lawrence, Ryan Steele, Betsy Struxness and Thayne Jasperson) are terrific.  John Arthur Greene (a favorite of mine from West Side Story) does a fine vocal turn as the doctor who brings Matlida into the world, while John Sanders does fine in two smaller, but important roles.  The children' ensemble (the night I saw it) included charming performances by true "triple threat" kids, including: Jared Parker, Beatrice Tulchin, Luke Kolbe Mannikus, Madilyn Jaz Morrow, Emma Howard and Judah Bellamy.  Watch out Annie and the orphans, these kids mean business in ways you never thought possible!Two absolutely charming and charismatic performances - both lifted by comic excess and grounded by a smart realism - come from Frenie Acoba  as Matilda's BEST FRIEND, and Jack Broderick as the kid who always gets caught, Bruce.  These two are going places, trust me.

Fantastical, magical performances come from Ben Thompson as The Escapologist and Samantha Sturm as The Acrobat.  (I dare not say anymore, so as to not give away anything they do!)  And Karen Aldridge's loving turn as the island-flavored librarian provides a quiet and emotional center along the way.  Taylor Trensch says maybe 10 words the whole evening, but is a true laugh riot as the slack jawed older brother of Matilda.  His costume, which includes a sweat shirt with the word "GENIUS" spelled out on it, speaks volumes.

But it is the comic bad guys of the show that really keep it moving and hyped up from start to finish, including the slimey dad, Mr. Wormwood, played with evil, if somewhat dimwitted, glee by Gabriel Ebert.  His physical comedy skills are astonishing for their simplicity, accuracy and the feeling of spontaneity.  His equally wicked wife is played to the garish hilt by Olivier Award winner Lesli Magherita.  What makes her really work is that she (Mrs. Wormwood) so fully believes that, while she can't really be bothered, she has the mothering thing down, admonishing Matilda for being so stupid as to read, rather than to care how she looks.  Mind you, this is the character that looks like Tropical Island Hooker Barbie... Both got full tilt in their roles and manage to make these nasty villains just a smidgen likable before it is all over.  Then there is the much talked about Bertie Carvel as the androgynous Miss Trunchbull.  He's everything you've heard he is - HUGE, over-the-top, scary as Hell, and one heck of a good sport.  It's not every man who will don hammer throwing garb, complete with kilt, and pretend to verbally and physically abuse 5 year-olds.  If Miss Trunchbull had a moustache, she'd twirl it with panache.  The tone of Carvel's voice, matched with the enormity of his presence is constant comic gold.  And he does the one smart thing a lesser actor might not do: he never really overshadows Matilda.  It is her show and he knows it.  Kudos to him.  And kudos to the lovely Lauren Ward as Miss Honey, who might just have the hardest role in the show.  Ward can sing and dance like a real champion, there's no doubt.  But she also manages to keep the show's one straight and narrow character interesting and still consistently heart-warming.  Her 11 o'clock number, "My House," will melt your heart.

Milly Shapiro, as Matilda (at this performance), is a charming tot with an old soul that is obvious even in the mezzanine, and brings a freshness to the stage that one imagines a young Andrea McArdle did decades ago, and a performer's maturity and presence one usually equates with the likes of Angela Lansbury.  Here is a sweet, real child that is mercifully devoid of that cloying child actor thing that drives me nuts.  When she's not the focus of the scene, she blends in; when she IS the scene, she commands the stage with a Merman-esque quality, as remarkable for its ballsy-ness as it is for being entirely appropriate.  Brava!  And congratulations on winning your first Tony.

"I'm a GIRL!" Matilda screams at her father, who refers to her as "boy," "son" and the like.  It is funny at first, then you notice the sad tinge to her screams, and finally, when you hear resignation her voice.  "That's NOT FAIR!"  "That's NOT RIGHT!" she defiantly yells at her headmistress.  Ah, how I long  for the black and white world of 5 year-old justice.  Given the week we've had as a country, I'm so glad that there's Matilda in the world.  Watch out, North Korea...

I haven't felt this charged up or completely satisfied since my first time seeing Next to Normal.  If you read me regularly, you understand the enormity of that statement.   I suppose that this euphoria was what I was supposed to feel after seeing Billy Elliot.  As the awards season reaches its frenzied climax, I'm sure Matilda will be compared to that show a lot.  Sorry, ballet boy.  This little girl has it all over you by a mile.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)


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