By Daniel Skora
Roald Dahl consistently ranks among the most popular of children’s authors. His numerous books for the younger set (he was also a novelist, short story writer, poet and screen writer) include “James and the Giant Peach”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (renamed “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” when it was made into a movie), and “The BFG” (Big Friendly Giant), a soon-to-be-released live action film directed by Steven Spielberg. Dahl’s books receive a significant boost in popularity whenever they are made into movies. Such was the case with “Matilda”, the story of a girl whose neglect by her parents drove her to become an avid book reader.
The 1996 film made of Dahl’s novel was produced and directed by Danny DeVito who, along with his then wife Rhea Perlman played Matilda’s parents, the Wormwoods. (Wormwood, incidentally, was also the name of the minor devil in C. S Lewis’ book “The Screwtape Letters”, in which the senior devil Screwtape instructs his nephew Wormwood via letters on how best to deal with the human that he has been assigned to tempt.)
Now along comes “Matilda The Musical”, a stage version of the Dahl classic. Since its April of 2013 opening, the original continues to entertain Broadway audiences. The show received 13 Tony Award nominations, winning in five categories, including Best Book of a Musical. Detroit’s Fisher Theatre is the first stop of a new national tour.
The show concerns the fortunes of Matilda (alternately played here by three actresses, Savannah Grace Elmer receiving the nod the night upon which this review is based.). Matilda is a super smart girl who draws, unfortunately, a pair of losers for parents in the genealogical lottery. Mr. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld) is a used car salesman who spends his free time watching television. Mrs. Wormwood (Cassie Silva) is a dance enthusiast who fancies that her dancing abilities are much greater than they really are.
Matilda spends a lot of time in the library, reading books and telling stories to the librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones). When she is finally sent off to school, she comes in contact with what can best be described as the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is her teacher, the unassuming Miss Honey (Natalie Wisdom) who recognizes Matilda’s exceptional abilities (a math wiz, Matilda can quickly multiply in her head problems that deal with two and three digit numbers) and recommends her for advancement. The bad and the ugly is the dreaded school Principal Miss Trunchbull (David Abeles). Miss Trunchbull is a former world champion hammer thrower who loves to terrorize children. She is meaner than the Grinch, meaner than Cinderella’s step mother, meaner than The Wicked Witch of the West, meaner than just about anyone you can think of. If you don’t believe that, just sign on to spend a day in the Chokey, Trunchbull‘s tiny chamber of horrors meant for any child who dares to cross her.
Matilda undergoes a series of encounters with her parents, her fellow students, and, especially, with Miss Trunchbull. It may be a long time before you’ll again be able to enjoy chocolate cake without thinking of Bruce Bogtrotter (Ryan Christopher Dever), the student who stole a slice of Miss Trunchbull’s cake and had to pay the price.
One of the best scenes in the show has to do with the use of shadow puppetry to help visualize the story Matilda tells to the librarian. The set is dominated by large Scrabble tiles that rim the stage’s proscenium arch.
I really wanted to enjoy this production, as did my theatre-going companion who is a longtime Roald Dahl fan and whose Dahl books still line the shelves of her personal library long after she has matured into more serious kinds of literature. The show came into town much awarded, has a distinguished pedigree, and represented an enormous investment in Broadway time, money, and talent. So why did this two and a half hour spectacle of the best that Broadway was capable of offering be so lacking in charm? The show’s PR said that it was suitable for children and adults. A check with my “Matilda” companion found that she, too, was disappointed, and greatly so, I might say. Some thoughts about the production:
- Don’t mess with a classic. Several attempts at updating the plot just don’t ring true. Examples include: Mrs. Wormwood engaging in a “Dancing With the Stars” contest with her instructor Rudolpho (Michael Gracceffa); the Russians to whom Mr. Wormwood has sold a bunch of junk cars are portrayed as a bunch of baseball bat-wielding thugs suggestive of a Russian Mafia; and a subplot that has Matilda telling Mrs. Phelps a story about an acrobat and an escapologist is so complicated that I wonder what the children in the audience could make of it.
- Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman have a well-earned reputation as comic actors who are likeable in spite of the roles they play in the movie. In the Musical, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are exaggerated caricatures of two extremely nasty parents. Mr. Wormwood welcomes the audience back from intermission by saying that anyone who has ever read a book is stupid.
- There’s really no reason why Miss Trunchbull should be played by a man in drag except, perhaps, to insert a little gender confusion into the minds of younger audience members.
- Better sound quality is needed. Dialogue and song lyrics are often difficult to make out because of high levels of music and because many of the songs are being sung by young voices.
The book for “Matilda” is by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Director is Matthew Warchus, set and costumes by Rob Howell. Orchestrations are by Chris Nightingale, and choreography by Peter Darling. The show runs through March 20th. Tickets are available for purchase at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1.800.982.2787, online at www.BroadwayInDetroit.com or www.ticketmaster.com and at the Fisher Theatre box office. The Fisher Theatre is located in the Fisher Building at 3011 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.