Tentatively, I’d say that there might be some good work in Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics for the new musical Matilda (Shubert Theatre). I can’t be certain, because the score’s transmitted, in performance, through Simon Baker’s sound design, which I think may be the sloppiest and most brutally over-miked sound design in Broadway history. At that decibel level, it’s hard to make out individual notes, let alone discern the shape of entire melodies, while Minchin’s lyrics, especially when yowled at you in children’s voices, get turned into a complete wash. I think I’d like to hear the score sung and played unplugged, by a cast all of whose members could sing, before making up my mind about it.
Matilda, based on the children’s book of the same name by Roald Dahl, is an oddity. A relentlessly conformist work, aggressively aimed to appeal to the broadest mass taste, it celebrates the virtues of nonconformism and the individualist spirit. A sadism-streaked musical that indicts criminal cheats and tyrannical bullies, it rejoices in their humiliation at the hands of more menacing crooks and scarier superpowers. It lauds the pleasures of reading and storytelling, which are among its key indicators of nonconformism, while it shows them as being of interest only to one exceptional child, one schoolteacher, and one librarian. Given the way the show revels in constant phantasmagoric techno-frenzy, pitching its message that way makes its ostensibly positive characters look like fools and misfits.
Of course, the book-loving little girl and the encouraging librarian, the bright little girl and the sympathetic schoolteacher, are familiar tropes. Dahl’s stroke of wit—the only one that seems to have survived into the musical—was to make the child teach her elders and not vice versa. Most of the story’s other elements have a similarly ancient lineage—the bullying headmistress, the oblivious or contemptuous parents, the pranks that bring a kid’s revenge on both, the swindled orphan whose inheritance gets magically restored—but Matilda, at least in this stage version, does nothing new with them. Instead it relies on loud noise, constant aimless movement (choreographed by Peter Darling), an incessant barrage of flashing lights (by Hugh Vanstone), and trick effects (by Paul Kieve), all splayed over Rob Howell’s garishly drab sets.
The show’s big stroke of cleverness—ho hum—is to have the villainous headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, played by a man. Bertie Carvel, with a bun appliquéd to the back of his hair and a hefty padded bosom, shows some suppleness, even turning a somersault at one point, but no sparkle. His menace is just a flat recitation of menace, vocally colorless, with no sinister charm, no shuddery danger, no hint of the hidden self-torments that traditionally give villains a little depth. There’s not even any sexual ambiguity, the character (a former hammer-throwing champion) having been thoroughly desexualized. He’s just an uninteresting man in women’s clothes filling a female role.
The show’s oddity is made even odder, in Matthew Warchus’s largely thug-handed production, by its occasional lapses into tenderness and quietude, which feel less like the musical theater’s customary changes of pace than like the moments of exhaustion that follow manic episodes. One such moment shows the schoolkids, on swings, singing a sweet, pensive song in which they dream of growing up. Its charm is mitigated by its complete irrelevance to the story in which it’s embedded, since these kids live in terror of a lunatic principal whose school is a surrealist nightmare.
In their stylistic isolation from the rest, such moments suggest that Warchus may be afflicted with some aesthetic equivalent of multiple personality disorder. His productions of standard-style comedies, like The Norman Conquests and God of Carnage, have shown him capable of steering both American and British actors with an elegantly light touch, which periodically turns up here, to wave a performer or a scene through what’s otherwise a prolonged screech-fest.
The puzzle is that you never know when Warchus’s delicate directorial hand will suddenly come crashing down like an iron fist. The evening’s most inexcusable screeching comes from Lesli Margherita, whose performance as Matilda’s mother is a prolonged amateurish embarrassment. Yet Gabriel Ebert gives a prancing, funny, neatly understated rendering of Matilda’s con-artist father, all wistful hope and wry corruption. The two play many scenes together, but it’s hard to believe the same director shaped both performances.
Other than Ebert, the main beneficiaries of Warchus’s light-hand phase are Lauren Ward, as Miss Honey, and the little girls who at various performances play Matilda. Two of the latter were on view at the press performance I attended, since Bailey Ryon apparently fell backstage after an exit and was replaced mid-show by Milly Shapiro. Both did well; Shapiro looked and sounded better for the role, but Ryon’s fetchingly earnest intensity captured its essence.
As for Ward, her sweetness, of both voice and presence, is a known quantity to those who’ve seen her in musicals like Off-Broadway’s Violet and the Roundabout revival of 1776. She and the Matildas get most of the bearable moments here. As written (script by Dennis Kelly), their scenes are rather dull and predictable, but the relief their quietude brings from the otherwise nerve-racking context is so immense that I kept wishing they would go on longer. But since Matilda already runs over two and a half hours including intermission, which would seem excessive even for a well-done children’s show, I think on the whole I had better withdraw that wish. Instead, I’ll take Matilda’s advice and, the next time Broadway is threatened with a British children’s musical, I will stay home with a good book.