Matilda, with a book by David Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, is based on the popular children's novel by Roald Dahl. After a brief run in Stratford-upon-Avon in late 2010, it opened in London in November, 2011, going on to win seven Olivier awards, including best musical. In simple terms, Matilda tells the story of a five-year-old girl who loves to read, and, with the help of a supportive teacher, overcomes a dysfunctional, nasty family and obstacles at school to find happiness.
It is always exciting to be in a theater for a preview performance of what is anticipated to be a hit musical; when that new musical has the pedigree of hit status and reviews in London (which was also true of Billy Elliot, a show I loved), the energy level can be even higher.That is how it felt recently at the Shubert Theatre, waiting for the beginning of Matilda. Unfortunately, for me at least, it evaporated quickly once the show began.
Matilda just left me totally cold. I did not even feel the occasional sparks that one gets at uneven musicals, which have their ups and downs but do not maintain the highs. In fact, until the last thirty minutes, when Matilda finally did bring me into the story, I felt completely distanced from everything happening onstage.
It is a dark story, and I often like dark musicals; I was a big fan of Spring Awakening, a show to which some people have compared Matilda. But Matilda, as one of my companions said, is too strident; the cruelty to children, which I had read about before seeing the show, was unrelenting and not something that made for entertaining, involving, or gripping theater. Yes, the villains were all caricatures, intentionally overdone; but while they were well performed, their unattractiveness became quickly tiresome.
Minchin's score did not compensate or improve things; on first hearing, there were three or four attractive melodies, but most of the songs failed to register at all; some difficulty understanding all the lyrics did not help either.
Given how I felt about Matilda, it was difficult to appreciate the admirable elements of the show. The production is visually impressive, even dazzling in spots, and quite well done; director Matthew Warchus has provided a consistent tone for the piece, and the performances were praiseworthy.
Bertie Carvel, who portrays the evil school headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, has received considerable acclaim for his cross-dressing performance. If I had liked the show a little more, maybe I would be raving about him too, but my overall reaction to the show influences how I responded to everything. Gabriel Ebert was strong as Matilda's father; he is constantly in motion and quite nimble with all his movement. Lauren Ward is sympathetic and likable as Miss Honey, Matilda's supportive teacher. Four girls are alternating in the role of Matilda -- I saw Bailey Ryon, and she was terrific -- a very talented and poised little girl.
As has been mentioned, the final thirty minutes, in which Matilda and Miss Honey connect, did reach me. It includes one of the better songs, "My House," the unending cruelty finally subsides, and there are some funny and touching moments. The final stage picture is lovely. It is all way too little, too late, though. I thought perhaps it was just me having a bad night (the audience was enthusiastic and, in spots, overly so, responding loudly even when nothing special was happening), and Matilda was highly acclaimed in London, but my two companions felt the same way as I did.
All that said, I expect Matilda will be a big success. That success may mystify me, but that is what entertainment is all about; each of us reacts differently to what we see. I had been excited about the chance to see Matilda, making the letdown all that much more disappointing. - James Miller
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.