One of the many problems with NBC's "let's make a musical" backstage saga SMASH is its picture of the current Broadway musical. Why are these people laboring on a musical about Marilyn Monroe when they're more likely to have a hit with an adaptation of Snow White, particularly if the dwarfs are replaced by seven little girls? For the most part, the Broadway musical has turned into spectacular "family entertainment" -- that is, children's theater that is also palatable for adults. When I was a kid, I went to shows like THE KING AND I, PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES and loved every minute. I can't imagine my parents taking me to a $100+ a ticket kiddie show. I think I would have been as bored with THE LION KING as I was as a grown up. You can raise your odds of Broadway success if for kiddie show is aimed at girls. NEWSIES, about a ragtag, but gym-buffed, group of teenage boys, isn't selling as well as the girl shows, WICKED, CINDERELLA or MATILDA. All three are doing sellout business, though the latter two have not officially opened yet.
MATILDA has a special pedigree. It began as a holiday production of the Royal Shakespeare Company at their Stratford-upon-Avon base before it settled into a run on London's West End (it's still running). The Royal Shakespeare Company isn't what it once was, to put it mildly. You get better Shakespeare at the Globe in London or at the National, in part because many actors don't want to spend long periods of time 100 miles from London. Nor does the RSC produce the best new work as they did thirty years ago. Still, MATILDA is a prestige item -- the RSC instead of Disney. Moreover, Roald Dahl, who wrote the book on which the musical is based, has a reputation as one of the more literate creators of children's fiction. In fact, MATILDA is a celebration of the joys of reading. The nerds triumph over the anti-intellectuals.
I have to start by saying that musicals about five year old girls aren't my cup of tea. I'd prefer more mature subject matter. Nonetheless, if one has to sit through a musical about a five year old girl, MATILDA offers many pleasures. Director Matthew Warchus and his colleagues (choreographer Peter Darling, set and costume designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone) have created one of the most visually inventive and beautiful productions I have seen (I would bet it has been made more spectacular for the US). Don't worry about taking folks, little or big, with short attention spans. The visual landscape is constantly changing in surprising and literally wonderful ways. At first, I was worried that we were going to be in patter song hell with Tim Minchin's score, but it is clever and varied in its post-Sondheim way.
Everyone in the cast is excellent, but the standout performance is Bertie Carvel's monstrous headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Carvel has garnered awards for this in London for good reason. He doesn't do the usual over-the-top British pantomime drag villainess. Miss Trunchbull, an aging athlete, looks like one of those Russian female Olympians of yore, massive of chest. Carvel never breaks character, even at the curtain call. Gabriel Ebert and Leslie Margherita are appropriately clownish as Matilda's aggressively dumb, anti-reading parents without every getting tiresome. Ebert played the lost young man in 4000 MILES at Lincoln Center last year. He is clearly equally at home in musical comedy. Lauren Ward is, as always, winning as Miss Honey, the nice teacher. The kids are amazingly good -- talented, disciplined and looking like they're having the time of their lives. Where do these kids come from?? I do wish the band was visible and sounded less tinny over the speakers.
This was an early preview. I would have cut down or made more visual Matilda's long story of the acrobat and escapologist (and the echo mike during the story muddies her diction), but otherwise the show seems to be in perfect shape.
I went half dreading seeing the show and feeling like the Grinch. I enjoyed it immensely. What could be better than a delightful musical about a five year old intellectual? Every child (and adult) should see that!!!!!
An irrelevant observation. Why can't people turn off their phones for 2 1/2 hours? The young woman in front of me was texting during much of the performance and I noticed that just about everyone in the theatre was texting or tweeting during the intermission, even in the men's room! For a fair amount of people, being in touch remotely with disembodied people via cellphone seems to be more important than being in touch with the physically present people around one. Or with the performance one has paid a fortune to see. Odd!
MATILDA. Shubert Theatre. March 11, 2013.