Matilda - Now THAT's What I'm Talking About!

Well, it's about time!

Not that this season has been a complete bust or anything in terms of musicals, but there is taking New York by storm (i.e Kinky Boots) and then there is TAKING NEW YORK BY STORM!

And right on cue...enter Matilda! Now open at the Shubert theater, everyone and their mother has heard about the high-caliber of this show since its debut and seven-time Olivier-winning run on the West End. And I am smiling ear-to-ear when I say how nice it is that a show is FINALLY living up to (or in this case, exceeding) its overseas hype. 

The moment when I absolutely fell in love? Just as I entered the theater. You know how I get a lil' moist over a cool set design and Rob Howell's work here is up to par. The building blocks with the letters combined with the Scrabble-esque tiling done all over the theater are so perfectly Matilda with its child-like sense of whimsey, but with enough of an edge that suggests the darkness of the original text. The rest of the transitional pieces - desks, walls, chalkboards, library shelves, you name - are just as impeccably done.

While the set design is gasp-inducing, damn-near everything else is jaw-dropping as well. Dennis Kelly's book, inspired from the Roald Dahl classic (as opposed to the film adaptation in the mid-90's, for those who were wondering) and British-ized given the location of its production roots, combine effortlessly with Tim Minchin's score to make for a wholly exciting show that doesn't let up on the knockout numbers or personality of its diverse characters. 

Combine their output with director Matthew Warchus' brilliant vision and Peter Darling's daring and technically-demanding choreography to make for a spectacle of entertainment and liveliness that I haven't seen since The Book of Mormon. I loved Once, don't get me wrong, but this is the type of show you recommend to your fringe-theater lovers and out-of-town guests. Not just because it is ostensibly commercial and mass-appeal (and kind-of family friendly), but moreso because it comes together wonderfully as any ground-breaking musical should.

Let me put it this way...Matilda's standing ovation/curtain call number - a reprise of the endearing "When I Grow Up" - has the entire ensemble on scooters maneuvering in and out. That number was more thought out and polished than most musicals in their entirety. AND THIS IS JUST THE CURTAIN CALL NUMBER.

Matilda...like a boss.

But yeah, most of the numbers are absolutely stunning. And much like A Christmas Story, it is refreshing to see a younger ensemble know what they are doing with full-scale numbers. The opener, an engrossing mood journey called "Miracle," sets the bar high and smartly features its young ragamuffins alongside the 25-30 year-old adult upper classmen-esque children (no, really). The "School Song" number, an homage to the horrors of Miss Trunchbull's school of doom, is jaw-dropping with its choreography and a bunch of flailing hands reaching from behind a fence of darkness.

The performances also give me life in every way as well. Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita are pitch-perfect as the zany and neglectful parents of Matilda, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. The former drops one-liners while wearing a fantastic, covetable plaid suit and the latter gets a show-stopping (if slightly expendible) salsa number, where she holds her own opposite a leather-clad and lovably over-the-top Philip Spaeth. Taylor Trench's Michael is dim-witted and all voice under his long hair, hat and hours in front of the television, but it is truly a brilliant bit of casting (and a nice redemption for Trench after his underwhelming performance in Bare). Ryan Steele, his cancer-curing smile and his "so fluid, he's practically water" body can do know wrong as one of the standout dancers. I never imagined he would encounter a choreography job more difficult then Specs in Newsies, but oh, I was wrong. His work on the aforementioned "School Song" is masterful and practically circus-like as he works without a net. And as the sweet and soft-spoken Miss Honey, Lauren Ward, a mainstay from the West End production, is a porcelain figure of an angel on stage. She may as well just wear wings and a halo.

The show is all about Matilda and the night I saw the show, I got a lovely Oona Laurence. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed her given my unrelenting hatred of most children, but that's how good she was. She's precocious without being a snobby, know-it-all bitch and by the time she sings the heart-breaking "Quiet," in response to her newfound isolation, I was fully immersed in her journey and feelz. Try as I might resist, but I just can't help but love her as she cavorts around the stage with such a charismatic confidence, singing about hijinx and books in the charming song titled "Naughty" and her having more ladyballs then anyone as she stands up to Miss Trunchbull. I can't speak regarding the other actresses, but anyone catching Laurence will be pleased.

But my hands-down favorite performance - and that is saying something considering this "talented on all ends" cast - is Bertie Carvel as the hammer-throwing, tough as balls, Ms. Trunchbull. Between his styling and all of his mannerisms, he disappears into the character and never breaks form his rigid posture and maniacal ways. How one individual can illicit such hilarious physicality and fear in a performance is astonishing. And both of his numbers, "The Hammer" and "The Smell of Rebellion," are him hauling overtime with the scenery chewing. He's a tour-de-force and Carvel should start clearing off the space for the awards to come in his direction.

Get used to the name "Matilda" everyone...with shop set up at the Shubert, you will be passing that marquee for years now. And try getting tickets while you still can...because they will be sold-out for months and cost a small down-payment, or as I call it, The Book of Mormon effect. And if I can just say, the show deserves every penny. An amazing feat of new theater and the lead protagonist is a little girl. Who woulda thunk?

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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