When I hear the expression “pure entertainment,” now I know what they mean:
And you’d think heading in to the Orpheum that this musical really shouldn’t work that well for adults. After all, Roald Dahl’s story focuses on a gifted girl, fighting in an world of oppressive adults; the bedroom a command center for dreaming up stories that can even come true. Children (maggots!), rise up! And two-and-a-half hours of pre-pubescent voices? I wasn’t so sure I was up to the task.
But this is one mighty fantastical evening.
A lot of that has to do with two outstanding performances (among many great ones).
Mabel Tyler. Remember that name. As Matilda, this girl is an inexplicable force of nature. It’s as if Dahl himself had raised a wand somewhere from the beyond and zapped her with the equivalent of ten Red Bulls, and enough talent to light up the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, and, sure, Union Square too. I can’t help but think of a young Judy Garland. Singing children at their best are usually an interesting (short-form) novelty, or at their worst shrill. Thankfully there’s little of the latter in this show — and when there is it’s a tongue-and-cheek nod to the material. And it’s the little Mabel that leads the pack. It’s one heck of a performance, and I can’t imagine here career not taking off from here.
Then there’s Bryce Ryness, playing the delightfully androgynous head mistress Miss Trunchbull. His received a staggering ovation; a performance that requires charming sinister, bespoke timing, and impressive physicality.
Between Tyler and Ryness the musical has a very solid core. Fortunately, they’re supported by a superb ensemble and other memorable performances, notably Quinn Mattfeld as Matilda’s scam artist of a Dad… nothing that a good prank or two wouldn’t keep in check.
The story largely takes place in a classroom, where students are “maggots” and their teacher, a sympathetic mouse who sees Matilda’s gifts. Miss Trunchbull runs the school like a military camp — one scene even subtly reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (you’ll know the one if you’ve seen it). Discipline! At home, while Matilda dives into books, her family prefers to learn about the world through the “telly” while Dad rolls back odometers on jalopies and sells them to “the Russians” for exorbitant markups.
The show’s anti-bully theme feels ever relevant given today’s focus on the awful cyber-bullying trend.
The musical’s anti-bully theme feels ever relevant given today’s emergence of the awful cyber-bullying trend. If she were on Twitter or Facebook, surely Matilda would be an inspirational role model. I’m guessing a pre-Internet meme would be born.
Choreography shines. One scene, where kids and adults take turns on a set of rope swings is gorgeous to behold. Lighting and music, combined with perfect timing result in some of the evening’s most jaw-dropping moments.
A few niggles to be sure, at least on opening night. On more than a few occasions, some of the dialog was hard to understand (maybe a mic issue). The second act isn’t quite up to the energy of the first, and the shows does feel a little long at some points (curtain is 8pm — I was headed back to the Civic garage at 10:45pm). And because of the wide-bordered set (columns of colorful alphabet blocks), the views really favor the center seats. Those on the left and right sections may have partially obstructed views, from time to time, of an actor, backdrop scenery and/or text written on a chalkboard. Regardless, minor stuff.
TO CHANGE THE WORLD it takes a LITTLE GENIUS
Understanding the world of Matilda
Telly – shorthand for television, Mr. Wormwood’s favorite pastime
Knackered – Exhausted or severely damaged, like the cars Mr. Wormwood sells
Headmistress – The principal of Chrunchem Hall, Miss Agatha Trunchbull
Babinatum Est Maggitum – Chrunchem Hall school motto, “Children are maggots”
Phys-Ed – Physical Education, Miss Trunchbull’s favorite class and preferred method of exhausting childern
The Chokey – A narrow cupboard with spikes on the walls and nails sticking up from the floor; where Miss Trunchbull sends students for detention
Newt – An aquatic, lizard-like amphibian
Source: SHN / Matilda the Musical
Matilda is genuine theatrical magic. This is touring Broadway at its best. Children and adults alike on this evening had oodles of laughs. Anti-bullying and pro-reading are messages that feel as fresh today as when Dahl published the book in 1988. Catch the show at the Orpheum while it’s here in San Francisco.
Photos: Joan Marcus