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'Matilda the Musical'

Bryce Ryness (Miss Trunchbull), Mabel Tyler (Matilda Wormwood), and Company in
Matilda the Musical National Tour (photo by Joan Marcus)

A holiday musical at the Kennedy Center is a fun tradition, especially during those days when children are home from school. It is even better when the work in question is a solid one, entertaining for all ages, and that is certainly the case with this year's option, Matilda the Musical, now playing at the Kennedy Center Opera House. A British show premiered in 2010 and showing on Broadway since 2013, it is now on its first United States tour, after having won a pile of awards, all well deserved.

available at Amazon
Matilda the Musical, Broadway Cast Recording
(Yellow Sound Label, 2013)
Roald Dahl's books are a household favorite at Ionarts Central, featuring children who understand the truth about the world their parents so often try to hide from them. It's a nasty place, filled with rotten people who have no reason to be anything but mean to you, and the only person you can rely on is yourself. Dahl's Matilda is a brilliant little girl whose parents openly loathe her. When she finally gets out of her awful home, it is to go to school, which all children, including Dahl himself, know is the most horrible place imaginable. Crunchem Hall Primary School is run by a tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who instead of the caning used as corporal punishment during Dahl's childhood in Great Britain, locks children in a torture cabinet known as the Chokey. A former Olympic athlete in the hammer throw, the brutish Miss Trunchbull is also known to hurl children across the schoolyard.

In the cast seen last Friday night, young Mabel Tyler was a spirited Matilda, doing remarkable things as actor, dancer, and singer. Part of the appeal of the show is that the creators -- Tim Minchin (lyrics and music) and Dennis Kelly (book) -- bet on the ability of a group of kids of varying ages to be a reliable and entertaining ensemble in this show. It could be a disaster, but thanks to the cleverness of the show, it somehow is not. The best song in the score, which is full of jazzy fun but not always memorable, is an ensemble one, the bittersweet but not saccharine When I Grow Up, which opens the second act.

Other Articles:

Peter Marks, Matilda, can you hear me? (Washington Post, December 21)

Kristen Page-Kirby, The smartest student at the Kennedy Center has special powers. What’s a teacher to do? (Washington Post, December 9)

Elaine Liner, Say What? Matilda the Musical Is Visually Stunning, Audibly Failing at the Winspear (Dallas Observer, September 25)

Misha Berson, Inventive, energetic ‘Matilda’ visits the 5th Avenue Theatre (Seattle Times, August 21)

Charles McNulty, The real magic of 'Matilda' is in the story of a spirited, bookish girl (Los Angeles Times, June 9)

Jordan Riefe, 'Matilda': Theater Review (Hollywood Reporter, June 8)

Ben Brantley, Children of the World, Unite! (New York Times, April 11, 2013)
Still, it is the adults that make the show so funny. Matilda's parents are so dense that they do not even realize that their gifted daughter is already far beyond them in intelligence. Cassie Silva's Mrs. Wormwood is ditzy and superficial, mincing around with her amateur dancing partner, the sebaceous Rudolpho (Jaquez Andre Sims). Quinn Mattfeld is both morally bankrupt and absurdly stupid as Mr. Wormwood, opening the second act with a scene speaking to the audience about how kids should not try these dangerous, disgusting things in the show at home -- "I mean reading books, of course," he adds, deadpan. The only saving graces in Matilda's life are Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones), the librarian who keeps her plied with books, and her new teacher, Miss Honey, played by the meek and angelic Jennifer Blood. It was an ingenious decision, though, to have Miss Trunchbull played by a cross-dressed character tenor, and Bryce Nyness pulled off the role with just the right combination of venomous hatred and dainty reserve, effectively stealing the show.

The staging is smart and snappy, with a handsome book-themed set (Rob Howell, who also designed the costumes) and breathless choreography by Peter Darling. The story's macabre turns mean that this musical is definitely not for small children. Miss Ionarts, who is 11, was quite frightened by Miss Trunchbull and the Chokey, even though the latter is not even shown on stage. After Miss Trunchbull appeared to whirl one of the children around in a circle and fling her into the wings, a younger child not far from us could be heard crying in fright. Even for children nine and up, a refresher talk about the illusion of theater is in order on the way to see this musical.

This production continues through January 10, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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