Broadway in Cincinnati’s Matilda Reminds Us of the Power of Storytelling
Posted On July 7, 2017
Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Matilda the Musical: Broadway in Cincinnati
I suppose everyone has a show or two that comes along just at the right time and so keeps a special place in their heart. One of mine is Matilda. I saw it first in London. I was by myself and feeling a little bit lonely; I had lost my credit card at a restaurant only a half hour before the show, and was cranky and annoyed by the English theatre’s crowded lobby, refusal to seat patrons until about 10 minutes before opening, and having to pay for the equivalent of a Playbill. Distracted and on edge, I was in no mood to be entertained. But then, suddenly, the curtain rose–I was transported to another world and by the end my spirits had lifted. Rest assured, the Broadway touring version of Matilda, now playing at the Aronoff, retains the same magic–so if you want to renew your faith in the power of positive thinking and the possibility of a happy ending against all odds, this is the show for you.
Matilda, based on a beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl, tells the story of a precocious young girl whose prodigious mental gifts are ignored and disdained both her parents and the sinister androgynous headmistress of her school, Miss Agatha Trunchbull. Miss Trunchbull, former English hammer throwing champion, takes delight in terrorizing the children of her school, Crunchem Hall, whose motto is “Bambinatum est maggitum”: “Children are maggots”. Matilda’s only solace is in her books, telling stories to the enraptured librarian, and her angelic but repressed teacher, Miss Honey, who recognizes her talents but is too timid to do much about it. With the help of her exceptional brain power (and some latent psychokinetic abilities), Matilda manages to change her life and the lives of those around her.
Many of you may remember the movie version of Matilda, a Danny DeVito/Rhea Perlman vehicle which had its own particular joys and flaws. Whatever you may have thought of that movie, don’t let it affect your decision to see Matilda, the Musical, as the latter has a very different sensibility and wisely focuses more on its storytelling and characterizations over its supernatural themes. The musical’s book, by Dennis Kelly, justly won a Tony Award in 2013.
Admittedly, the music, by Tim Minchin, is never going to be part of anyone’s top ten most memorable scores–although a few songs, like “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up”, do stick with you. All of the numbers, however, stand out in their eye-catching choreography filled with constant movement and clever props, whether swings, desks, or trampolines. All are also flawlessly performed by a top-notch cast. The large number of children are all obscenely talented. An old stage adage, attributed to W.C. Fields, is “Never work with children or animals”. I would not want to be a member of the adult chorus in this show who have to compete with the kids’ charm and energy, and who despite their own talent seem to be unable to get out of their shadows. As for Matilda (played by Jamie MacLean at this performance but alternately by Gabby Gutierrez and Jenna Weir)–well, I can’t imagine how one can find a single 11 year old, let alone three, who can anchor a show like this with so much poise, confidence and charisma (not to mention vocal talent). Each of the adult principals get their moment to shine as well: Darcy Stewart as Matilda’s mother in the aptly named “Loud”; her father, Matt Harrington, in the hilarious Act II opener “Telly”; and the lovely Jennifer Bowles as Miss Honey, in the understated “My House”. Of course, the most juicy part goes to Dan Chameroy as Miss Trunchbull. The role is both vocally and physically demanding, and Chameroy alternates between her restrained malevolence and hyperbolic wrath with glee.
But whatever one may think of the story or performances, no one can deny the pure originality and spectacle of the technical design. The base of the set is an alphabetic montage of children’s blocks, which often spell out the motifs of the show in both subtle and not so subtle ways; but whether we are in Matilda’s home, Crunchem Hall, or the Library, no expense is spared on colorful, striking design elements and clever special effects.
Despite its flashiness, however, Matilda the Musical is fundamentally about the joys of stories and story-telling. Its most mesmerizing moments are the recurring scenes of Matilda relating a tantalizing tale of her own creation to the librarian, growing in gradually increasing degrees of realism, authenticity and captivation. In the same way, Matilda rejoices in its own storytelling and is never shy about the power of its own narrative format. Anyone, young or old, who enjoys a great yarn full of gasps of surprise, tugged heart-strings, and larger than life characters, will certainly find joy in her story, and is an experience not to be missed.
Broadway in Cincinnati’s Matilda runs through April 16th at the Aronoff Center. Tickets are available at cincinnatiarts.org or call 513-621-ARTS.