“My Mummy says I’m a miracle!” sings the first child to appear onstage, in the opening number of Matilda: The Musical. He’s quickly joined by more kids, all singing about how their parents treat them like princes and angels and Daddy’s “special little guy.” The delicious irony, of course, is that they’re a bunch of brats, and Matilda, the precocious four-year-old who outshines them all, has been sentenced to the two most neglectful, self-absorbed parents on earth. Her pompadour-haired Dad can’t even get it through his thick skull that she’s a girl.
The real miracle, though, is not Matilda, but Matilda, the wondrous new musical from London that has just arrived on Broadway. It would be easy to call it the best British musical since Billy Elliot, but that, I’m afraid, would be underselling it. You have to go back to The Lion King to find a show with as much invention, spirit and genre-redefining verve. After plugging through years of slick but workmanlike musicals, crowd-pleasing song cycles and formulaic spirit-lifters (latest example: Kinky Boots), Matilda seems to clear away the deadwood and announce a fresh start for the Broadway musical.
The Royal Shakespeare Company production is based on Roald Dahl’s famous children’s story, about a little girl who reads Dickens before most kids can spell, glues her father’s hat to his head, and battles injustices with a little talent for moving objects with her eyes. It’s a children’s story, to be sure, but with its jaundiced satire of good family values and deep understanding of the anxieties of both kids and grown-ups, there isn’t a more adult show on Broadway.
Dennis Kelly’s book stays true to the spirit, and most of the details, of Dahl’s story, while adding some new trimmings. Matilda’s dad (the hilarious Gabriel Ebert) is a sleazy car dealer who turns back the speedometers on the junkers he sells to gullible Russians. Mom (Lesli Margherita) is a peroxide-blonde dimwit who travels the world to compete in amateur dance contests. Matilda’s chief nemesis, however, is the sadistic, hammer-throwing headmistress Miss Trunchbull — played, as in London, by Bertie Carvel in drag. Teetering inside a billowing drab-brown dress, she spews florid insults at Matilda and the teacher who befriends her (“Standing up for the little spitball, are you?”) and sends misbehaving kids to an ominous-sounding punishment called Chokey. Miss Hannigan, move over; there’s a new sheriff in town
Tim Minchin’s songs demonstrate what’s wrong with most Broadway scores — those generic collections of detachable numbers (the big ballad, the rock rouser, the country interlude, the Tin Pan Alley throwback) that seem interchangeable from show to show. Minchin, a British stand-up comedian and musician, has written a score that seems all but woven into the scenery—simple but distinctive tunes, with modest orchestrations (just a few horns, percussion and piano), intricate lyrics, a touch of jazz here, or wailing rock there, but all of a piece, integral to the show and like nothing else.
Every element of the show seems hand-crafted and right. The set is a whimsical cloudburst of Scrabble tiles and alphabet blocks, floating up to the rafters. Choreographer Peter Darling (who also did Billy Elliot) turns the kids, in the schoolroom chorus numbers, into a dazzling precision drill team. There’s not a weak link in the cast (though, with four young actresses alternating as Matilda, I can officially vouch only for the one I saw, a blonde charmer named Milly Shapiro). Director Matthew Warchus lets the characters go gloriously over the top (the way children see them), but also brings a hushed intensity to the scenes — an inspired addition — in which Matilda turns storyteller herself, enrapturing the local librarian with her own power of imagination.
Okay, Matilda isn’t quite perfect. The second act, though boasting some of the show’s best numbers (like “The Smell of Rebellion,” with Trunchbull putting her charges through their gymnastics paces on the springboard vault), runs a bit too long, and the late entry of the Russian mafia may be one plot twist too many. More seriously, the combination of shrill child voices, British accents and heavy miking causes many of the lyrics to get muddled, at least to this American ear.
A bigger question is whether American audiences, used to more simplistic “family” shows or the slam-bang satire of The Book of Mormon, will take to a darker, more contemplative and delicately layered show like Matilda. They’d better. If not, it’s Chokey for everyone.