‘Matilda’: Theater Review

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After collecting a record seven Olivier Awards in 2012, Matilda the Musical set sail for Broadway where it received rapturous reviews and seemed like a favorite going into the 2013 Tonys. But a funny thing happened on the way to Radio City: Kinky Boots won the night, taking home six awards, including best musical and best score for Cyndi Lauper. Some politely suggested that it came down to a local production vs. a U.K. import, with the victor enjoying home-field advantage. Others less politely suggested that Matilda was robbed, and, with all due respect to Kinky Boots, they’re right. Subversive, witty and effervescently offbeat, Matilda brings undiluted magic to L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre.

Among Roald Dahl’s final novels before his death in 1990, Matilda maintains the dark humor that runs throughout most of his work, providing ballast to a genre that, in popular entertainment, is too often characterized by froth. His villains are usually adults, fools who are puffed up with self-importance, figurative and often literal destroyers of the magic that is intrinsic to childhood. In a broader context, they represent the grim inevitability of adulthood, where joy is sometimes replaced by cruelty, and vanity and self-loathing go hand in hand.

Matilda Wormwood (Mia Sinclair Jenness) is a preternaturally brilliant young girl who loves nothing more than a good book. Not just any good book, but novels by people like Dickens and Dostoyevsky, the latter of which she read in the original Russian. She’s self-taught, of course — she’d have to be, in the book-hating Wormwood household. As her vulgar mother (Cassie Silva) sings, “Looks are more important than books.”

Instead, she is encouraged to watch television. There’s even a song, “Telly,” sung by Mr. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld) to open the second act. Like a dance-hall throwback in his trademark green plaid suit and bouffant hairdo, Wormwood extols the virtues of television. Taking over the role from Tony winner Gabriel Ebert, Mattfeld is as adept at physical comedy as he is at finding laughs in Tony-winning playwright Dennis Kelly’s sly phrasing. Always wishing for a second son, Wormwood insists Matilda is a boy, even though she never fails to correct him.

In fact, Matilda is all about correcting things, as she tells us in her opening aria, “Naughty,” when she sings, “Just because you find life is unfair, doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it.” Instead of putting up with abuse, she uses her wits to get even. Her wits come courtesy of an inner life honed in the world of books and storytelling. Words provide her with both shelter and weaponry, helping Matilda build self-esteem while offering useful knowledge in coping with a cruel world, which is why letters of the alphabet practically explode off of Rob Howell’s lyrical set design.

Unfortunately for Matilda, there are bigger bullies than her father lurking. Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness), the former national hammer-throwing champion, happens to be the psychotic headmistress of Matilda’s new school, where the motto is “Bambinatum est Maggitum,” or “Children are maggots.”

Endowed with broad shoulders and bust, skinny legs and an enormous mole next to her nose, Trunchbull is paramount among the show’s many major attractions. Her number, “The Hammer,” in which she stresses the importance of staying within the lines, both in her sport and in her life, drives the point home with a vigorous gymnastic dance routine accented by a trailing yellow ribbon. As portrayed by the scene-stealing Ryness, when Trunchbull’s not hilariously daft, she’s horribly sadistic, capriciously doling out punishment.

Anyone can be picked on at any time, and that includes Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), Matilda’s teacher, the only one who recognizes the child’s innate genius and her unendurable circumstances. In her sweet soprano voice, Blood captures Miss Honey’s yearning to break out of her fear and confront Trunchbull, if not for herself, at least on behalf of the children. And yet she proves powerless, leaving Matilda to set things right.

Leading the cast, the irrepressible Jenness plays Matilda as a messy-haired little girl with no reason to smile, so instead she wears a serious expression, as if solving a puzzle, which in fact she is. Jenness doesn’t need to court audience empathy for her character; the text has already done that for her, and working with director Matthew Warchus, she's clever enough to recognize it.

Warchus, who has done exceptional dramatic work on nonmusical plays like Yasmine Reza’s Art and God of Carnage, finds solid footing here as a director of musicals after lukewarm previous attempts (notably Ghost, and an unsuccessful Lord of the Rings musical). Together with choreographer Peter Darling (Billy Elliot), he miraculously corrals a company of children who, on second glance, probably don’t require much corralling. Consisting mainly of pre-teens, the ensemble makes Darling’s precision-fueled dance steps look like second nature. Even more impressive is the fact that no matter how polished their performances, they still come across as regular kids.

Composer Tim Minchin’s score leans heavily on minor chords, weaving a paradoxical balance between light and dark. “School Song,” with inspired vertical choreography on a ladder-like gate, features older children telling new kids of the horrors that await them. “When I Grow Up,” also sung by the company, is a more optimistic tune performed on swings. When the chorus swells, and the kids fly out over the audience, it's a wistful moment of youthful longing, buoyantly captured, both physically and musically.

Matilda is full of such transcendence, whether it’s a silly-sexy samba lesson, featuring Mrs. Wormwood and her dance partner Rodolpho (Jaquez Andre Sims), or “The Smell of Rebellion,” a gym class ensemble number that makes inspired use of a mini-trampoline and vault.

Trunchbull insists the children are revolting, and indeed they are, just not in the way she thinks. Will she be vanquished? With this show, it could go either way, because part of what makes Matilda so original is that it's not afraid of the dark.

Cast: Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness, Mable Tyler, Jennifer Blood, Quinn Mattfeld, Bryce Ryness, Cassie Silva, Cameron Burke, Brittany Conigatti, Michael Fatica, Wesley Faucher, John Michael Fiumara, Camden Gonzales, Shonica Gooden, Michael D. Jablonski, Ora Jones, Stephanie Martignetti, Justin Packard, Jaquez Andre Sims, Ian Michael Stuart, Danny Tieger, Natlie Wisdom, Darius Wright, Cal Alexander, Kayla Amistad, Luke Kolbe Mannikus, Evan Gray, Cassidy Hagel, Meliki Hurd, Megan McGuff, Serena Quadrato, Aristotle Rock, Kaci Walfall
Director: Matthew Warchus
Music and lyrics: Tim Minchin
Book: Dennis Kelly
Choreographer: Peter Darling
Set and costume designer: Rob Howell
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound designer: Simon Baker

Presented by: Center Theatre Group, Royal Shakespeare Company, the Dodgers

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