NEW YORK – The British import "Matilda: the Musical," which opened last month at the Shubert Theater on West 44th Street to an uproar of critical acclamation, is the first certified musical hit since "The Book of Mormon" took Broadway by storm two years ago. Last season, there was a delightful small (and still running) musical success, "Once," a joyously modest pleasure, but the unassuming "Once" is not blockbuster entertainment like "Matilda: the Musical," which is the kind of big-time show audiences seem to long for and Broadway’s economics depends on.
"Matilda: the Musical" is based on Roald Dahl’s successful children’s novel about Matilda Wormwood, a gifted little girl, a voracious reader and a math whiz, who was born into the most unlikely and uncultured cartoon strip of a family. Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert), her daft dad, would have preferred a boy and consistently refers to Matilda as "boy," while her mother Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita), a gaudily dressed lowbrow, shows little interest in her daughter and is mostly preoccupied with taking dancing lessons with her tango teacher Rudolpho (Phillip Spaeth).
Michael (Taylor Trensch), her brother, sits around the house all day, staring hypnotized at the TV. If things were not dreary enough for Matilda at home, school proves to be not much cheerier. There she has to deal with the mean and recalcitrant headmistress Miss Trunchbull (played larger than life by the English actor Bertie Carvel), who charmingly refers to her little charges as "maggots."
Yet Matilda seems to take all this unpleasing behavior in her stride, sporting a disposition as sophisticated as her precocious intellect. She is not immune to playing some delightfully wicked schoolgirl pranks on her offending elders, though.
"It is okay to be a little bit naughty sometimes," she says.
Matilda takes refuge at the local library and finds solace in reading everything from Crime and Punishment and Moby Dick to the more age-appropriate The Cat in the Hat. It’s at the library that she meets librarian Mrs. Phelps (the enchanting Karen Aldridge), whom she mesmerizes with made-up stories.
When her kind schoolteacher Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) recognizes Matilda’s extraordinary talents, she decides to make a visit to the Wormwood household to inform the parents of their daughter’s genius, but is only mocked by them.
On Broadway, "Matilda: the Musical" is performed by a mixed cast of English and American players with four little girls alternating as Matilda – Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryan and Milly Shapiro, who played the role on the evening I attended.
Miss Shapiro is a pint-sized wonder. She is blonde and pale and 10 years old, although she appears younger on stage. She never smiles but never seems sorry for herself; she has all the built-in self-confidence and personality of Dahl’s unique creation. She is backed up by eight boys and girls, all of enormous talent, whose ages range from 9-13. If there were any poetic justice in the theater, all of their names would be up in lights over the Shubert’s marquee.
Director Matthew Warchus, who last season couldn’t conjure up much magic in his unsuccessful musical adaptation of the movie "Ghost," here shows that given the right material, he can be a master stager. "Matilda: the Musical" has been impeccably crafted, and Mr. Warchus has done a wondrous job of transferring the essence of Dahl’s work from page to stage.
Librettist Dennis Kelly has also deftly kept Dahl’s basic tale intact, not sentimentalizing it in any manner, and he has not been afraid to include some of the story’s inherent dark moments that are part of Matilda’s journey.
The musical’s score by Tim Minchin, best known as a satiric songwriter, is by no means classic Broadway fare and doesn’t have the musical drive or beat of an "Oliver!" or "Annie," but it does appropriately fit into the show’s overall pattern. There are some lovely musical moments: Matilda’s song "Quiet," Miss Honey’s "My House" and Miss Trunchbull’s character turn, "The Smell of Rebellion." Act Two opens with a delightful show-stopper number, "When I Grow Up."
Choreographer Peter Darling, who won a Tony for "Billy Elliot," has filled the stage with inventive movement rather than traditional Broadway dance numbers, and all is performed to perfection by the well-drilled kids. It’s reminiscent of the recent Stephen Huggett’s musical staging for "Once" and Bill T. Jones’s work on "Spring Awakening."
The show’s special effects are by Paul Kieve. The fanciful physical production and costumes are by Rob Howell and are spectacular, but in the end the real stars and soul of the show are Matilda and her classmates. Talking, singing and dancing, they give "Matilda: the Musical" the lift that makes it an irresistible hit.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and writes about the arts and entertainment.