THE BASICS: The touring production of MATILDA THE MUSICAL based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, presented by Shea’s and Albert Nocciolino, opened on Tuesday and runs through Sunday November 8, with remaining shows this Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 & 8, and Sunday at 2 & 7 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org. Run time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Based on the 1988 children’s novel by Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, BFG) the musical follows the book fairly closely. Matilda, a precocious girl who teaches herself to read, is not appreciated by her parents, especially her father, who wanted a boy. She is sent to an awful elementary school run by the evil Miss Trunchbull, but, through the powers of her mind, is able to alter her life (and others’) for the better. While the voices of the children were at times a little hard to understand (and harder yet during the ensemble numbers), the dancing is crisp, the orchestra first rate, the acting very professional, and the staging and special effects delightful.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: First off, thank you to Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) for not “going totally Hollywood” but keeping the major characters pretty much as the book has them. I think we can all agree that reading a book, especially if it’s a children’s book, is “better” than any subsequent movie or musical. In the novel Matilda’s father is much, much worse than the stage character and Matilda is presented as more involved in mischief such as dyeing her father’s hair and tipping the newt-water on Miss Trunchbull. Also, Miss Honey’s father is a doctor, not an escape artist, and the musical has invented some characters including Rudolpho the dance instructor, as well as the Russian mobsters.
But all of that is minor, because in the end, Matilda (Mia Sinclair Jenness on Wednesday night) is completely believable; Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) is as sweet and kind as she is in the book; and Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness) is actually better on stage than in the book. She (he) really is the best part of the evening. And, let’s be honest. If you are an elementary school-aged girl, you will love this musical and if you are a parent of same you will be delighted by proxy. But for the rest of us, we really needed something juicy and Bryce Ryness delivered. Of course, the applause was greatest for the title character, but the next loudest ovations were for Miss Trunchbull, who stayed marvelously in character all through the curtains calls.
Fans of musicals will also thoroughly enjoy the wonderful collaboration between set designer Rob Howell and choreographer Peter Darling, especially in the opening number “Miracle.” I am not sure how they did it, but characters appeared suddenly and disappeared equally suddenly (I mean instantaneously – “poof”) throughout this very complex dance number which uses tables, hospital beds, privacy screens, prams and much more. It was a first class opening.
In the second half, “The Smell of Rebellion” had equally high energy, but it’s carried mostly by the children and Miss Trunchbull, as opposed to “Miracle” which uses the full ensemble.
And, finally, a “bravo” to the pit orchestra which really came up big.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!