‘Matilda’s’ magic

The won­der of the mu­si­cal at the Ah­man­son isn’t in its stag­ing or score; it’s in the story of a spir­ited, book­ish girl

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - charles.mcnulty@la­times.com

CHARLES MCNULTY THEATER CRITIC How can you not love a mu­si­cal about a badly mis­treated pint-sized prodigy whose pas­sion for read­ing res­cues her from the bul­lies and boors around her?

“Matilda the Mu­si­cal,” the Bri­tish im­port that be­came a Broad­way hit, has a se­cret weapon in its ti­tle char­ac­ter — a pre­co­cious 5-year-old who reads Dos­to­evsky in the orig­i­nal Rus­sian while her loutish par­ents brow­beat her for not watch­ing tele­vi­sion and the mon­strous head­mistress of her school looks for ex­cuses to sadis­ti­cally pun­ish her.

When the show opened on Broad­way in 2013, I took quite a lik­ing to Matilda her­self but found the pro­duc­tion a bit clam­orous. The car­toon world drawn on­stage was un­de­ni­ably in­ven­tive, but the comic an­tics were per­formed to cap­ture a tod­dler’s at­ten­tion, and the am­pli­fi­ca­tion was clob­ber­ing. Matthew Warchus’ stag­ing has set­tled down in the tour­ing pro­duc­tion that has kicked off at the Ah­man­son Theatre. The show may not have quite the same level of vir­tu­os­ity, but the mer­its of Den­nis Kelly’s Tony Award-win­ning book are more ap­par­ent than they were in New York.

“Matilda” is still too long, but this twisted fa­ble by Roald Dahl builds to a sat­is­fy­ing cli­max that will ap­peal to any­one who has strug­gled to cre­ate a bet­ter life than the one he or she was born into.

Tim Minchin’s score is re­plete with stomp­ing melodies for an­tic young­sters ea­ger to es­cape the vise of author­ity. A satiric streak runs through the show, one that is harder on grownups than on chil­dren, yet there’s a keen aware­ness through­out that many of those pre­cious lit­tle ones are noth­ing more than mean and bit­ter adults in train­ing.

“Mir­a­cle,” the show’s open­ing num­ber, ex­presses this mock­ing spirit. As spoiled brats march about the stage, re­fer­ring to them­selves as mir­a­cles, their par­ents crow, “He’s just de­light­ful/So hi­lar­i­ous and in­sight­ful,/Might she be a lit­tle brighter than her class/Oh, yes, she’s def­i­nitely ad­vanced.”

“No-neck mon­sters,” Ten­nessee Wil­liams’ un­for­get­table phrase from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” might paint too harsh a por­trait of this ju­ve­nile army, but if you’ve read Dahl’s “Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory” you prob­a­bly have an idea of how or­di­nary tykes are be­ing taught to think of them­selves as be­yond com­pare.

Matilda (played by Ma­bel Tyler on the night I at­tended), by con­trast, re­ally is some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary. Sadly, hardly any­one takes no­tice.

Her self-en­grossed mother, Mrs. Worm­wood (Cassie Silva), cares only about ball­room danc­ing con­tests, while her fa­ther, Mr. Worm­wood (Quinn Mat­tfeld), a crooked car sales­man, re­fuses to even ac­knowl­edge that his daugh­ter is, in fact, a girl, not a boy.

The sound­track of Matilda’s fam­ily life con­sists of TV roar and shouted in­sults. Her brother (Danny Tieger) oc­cu­pies a priv­i­leged place in her par­ents’ af­fec­tions for the sim­ple rea­son that he is a com­plete numb­skull.

Matilda’s fa­ther, dis­gusted by her love of learn­ing, sends her to a school where the cruel head­mistress, he hopes, will sort her out. A for­mer Olympic ham­mer thrower, Miss Trunch­bull (Bryce Ry­ness in drag that’s part gym teacher, part fire-breath­ing dragon) sur­passes even Mr. Worm­wood’s de­scrip­tion of her

For­tu­nately, there’s some­one on the fac­ulty who rec­og­nizes the jewel of Matilda’s mind. Miss Honey (lovely Jen­nifer Blood), a young and good-na­tured teacher, takes Matilda un­der wing, but she too is pet­ri­fied of Miss Trunch­bull, who grows more determined to dis­ci­pline Matilda the more Miss Honey tries to pro­tect her.

The mu­si­cal’s first half is over­stretched, bounc­ing from Matilda’s home to the school to the li­brary, where she loads up on new books and tells sto­ries to the li­brar­ian (Ora Jones), who can’t get enough of the girl’s macabre se­rial about a child­less acro­bat and an es­cape artist cou­ple. But the show, un­fold­ing on a set by Rob How­ell in which al­pha­bet let­ters play a prom­i­nent role, in­ge­niously comes to­gether in the sec­ond half.

All those sto­ries that Matilda has been de­vour­ing have en­dowed her with preter­nat­u­ral pow­ers and rare wis­dom. The yarn that she has been in­vent­ing for the li­brar­ian has a prophetic qual­ity. Fic­tion, in Dahl’s es­ti­ma­tion, is a source of se­cret knowl­edge that must be un­cov­ered by au­thor and reader alike.

The Broad­way pro­duc­tion was dom­i­nated by Ber­tie Carvel’s fiendish Miss Trunch­bull, top­pling all in her tread, and Gabriel Ebert’s Tony-win­ning turn as a Gumby-like Mr. Worm­wood. Ry­ness and Mat­tfeld don’t wow us with their fe­roc­ity or elas­tic­ity, but they il­lus­trate their char­ac­ters vividly.

Tyler’s Matilda is adorable, as I’m sure Gabby Gu­tier­rez and Mia Sin­clair Jen­ness, who al­ter­nate in the role, are as well. Short of stature, Tyler is large in spirit and con­veys Matilda’s sweet­ness and per­cep­tive­ness, her sad­ness and shrewd­ness, to the back of the cav­ernous house.

Though Blood’s Miss Honey is a ner­vous Nel­lie, she’s filled with such love for her charges that she rushes to their side when there is no one else to shield them.

“Matilda” isn’t es­pe­cially mem­o­rable for its stag­ing or score. What sets this show about a book­ish young­ster apart is its nar­ra­tive en­chant­ment. That is the magic that fit­tingly al­lows this mu­si­cal to fly.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

A LOVE of read­ing makes all the dif­fer­ence for Matilda, adorably played by Ma­bel Tyler, one of three ac­tors who al­ter­nate the ti­tle role.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

EVAN GRAY, top cen­ter, and Ma­bel Tyler, seated, are part of the pre­co­cious cast of the tour­ing pro­duc­tion of “Matilda the Mu­si­cal,” now at the Ah­man­son.

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