This past week, the Tony Award-winning musical Matilda: the Musical played the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC and the cast and crew filled the room with rebellion and magic. With a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by comedian Tim Minchin, Matilda the Musical tells the story of Matilda Wormwood (Jaime Maclean, at my performance), a young, smart, book-obsessed girl raised by abusive parents who is sent to a school, run by the evil Ms. Trunchball (Dan Chameroy), and discovers she possesses magical powers. Based on the classic novel by Roald Dahl, Matilda: the Musical aims to remind us all that sometimes we have to be a little bit naughty in life, and that’s okay! (Note: pictures may not be from the current tour; I had to make do with what I could find.
The book, Matilda, is considered a classic in children’s literature, for good reason, so the musical adaptation had quite large shoes to fill, and for the most part, it successfully filled those shoes. The musical elects to condense a lot of the book’s plot into one main thread while adding a subplot of Matilda telling librarian Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser) a story about an escape artist (Justin Packard) and his acrobat wife (Kim Sava) who want nothing more than a child – which turns out to be the backstory for Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles), Matilda’s teacher. Making this change allows the musical to streamline its focus on the parallel journeys of Matilda and Miss Honey as they both fight against their abusive guardians (for Matilda, this is her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Matt Harrington and Darcy Stewart; for Miss Honey, this is Miss Trunchball, her aunt). It’s a smart decision and one which benefits the musical greatly. The other great aspect of the musical, from a writing standpoint, is Tim Minchin’s songs. His compositions are strong and embed various motifs for different characters that pop up throughout the musical. Minchin is also a talented comedian with a love of words and wordplay, and he brings that love to this musical and utilizes every bit of it. The lyrics are so dense and full of references, jokes, and hidden meanings that it’s really a treasure trove of adventure just listening to the words.
When you can understand the words, that is. And here is the ultimate problem: there is no need for this to be set in England. The book was, but the movie wasn’t. Normally, I wouldn’t care. But it matters here because none of the actors are able to say or sing their lines with clear enough diction for the audience to be able to understand them through their thick, fake British accents. The accents are so thick and distracting that entire sentences and songs just get lost. In particular, the first part of “Miracle” and all of “Loud” are completely indecipherable because of the lack of enunciation and clear diction. This is a fault of both the director, Matthew Warchus, and the voice director, Andrew Wade. The two of them should have spent more time, especially with the children ensemble and the adult actors, to make sure they really had their diction down.
Thankfully Jaime Maclean, the young actress who played Matilda, had fairly strong diction. It wasn’t perfect, and some of her dialogue and singing got lost in the accent, but most of the time she was pretty easily understood. Additionally, she was staggeringly brilliant as Matilda. She performed like she’d been doing this all of her life. Maclean possessed such a natural command of the stage that it was hard to believe she was so young. She was the perfect choice for Matilda, and she really carried the show. The rest of the cast were pretty good too – with the exception of the Wormwood family. Maybe it’s because the characters were so annoyingly written and underdeveloped, but every time one of them came onstage, I internally groaned. It was a drag having to sit through the scenes with Matilda’s parents. I’m sure the actors were doing their best, and what they were given to work with wasn’t a lot, but still.
Special kudos should be given to set designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, Illusion designer Paul Kleve, and choreographer Peter Darling. The four of them did brilliant work on the musical. Darling’s choreography brought lots of energy and utilized the space expertly without being too distracting. His choreography never called attention to itself; it just moved the story along. Same with Howell’s set and Vanstone’s lighting; both were simply incredible and awe inspiring, but never too much that it took away from the rest of the show. Kleve’s illusions were particularly impressive. During one of Matilda’s stories, the escape artist and the acrobat perform a stunt that is projected onto the back curtain of the set, and it works remarkably well. Plus, of course, Kleve is in charge of making all of Matilda’s uses of magic work onstage, and he succeeds so well that I genuinely couldn’t figure out how it was done. It was true stage magic, and that’s more valuable than anything else.
Overall, Matilda: the Musical is a fun night at the theatre. It’s a funny, heartwarming musical based on a classic kid’s book. It’s fun for all ages and will have you laughing and bopping your head throughout. It’s really fun seeing it with young kids and hearing their reactions at various parts of the show; they really get lost in the magic of the story and it’s just amazing to witness.
Matilda the Musical gets 4 out of 5 wands.
Matilda: the Musical has ended its run in Raleigh, but the tour continues! Its next stop is in Lincoln, Nebraska. More info can be found on their website!