Friday, May 06, 2016

MATILDA, not everything it is cracked up to be at the State Theatre

Matilda Wormwood is a precocious five-year old who loves to read and has the ability to perform telekinesis.  She also likes to meet life’s obstacles.  She comes from a family in which her father wanted a male child, so he calls her “boy,” has a mother who didn’t know she was pregnant and when Matilda came along was irritated because it interfered with Mrs. Wormwood entering dancing competitions and carrying on an affair with her dance instructor, and whose fellow students think she is odd because she likes school and knows all the answers.

Matilda is the central character in the children’s novel by Roald Dahl, which carries her name, and is the basis for MATILDA, THE MUSICAL, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly.

The musical has a charming young heroine, a bunch of adorable kids, three villains, (mom, dad and Miss Trunchbull, the nasty principal), a charming teacher (Miss Honey), a fun librarian (Mrs. Phelps) and lots of singing and dancing.  What’s not to like?

Listening to conversations in the lobby of the State Theatre at intermission on the second night of the local run, it became obvious that there was a lot to not like!  Comments overheard included, “I can’t understand the kids.”  “The accents are overdone.”  “The sound system makes everything sound like high-pitched mush.”  “The band drowned out the actors.”  “I don’t remember a single song from the first act.”  “There are no big showstoppers.”  These comments were made by those who stayed.  There’s no accounting for the motives of those who ran for the exits at the interval, never to return.  (Our row and that in front, had lost about a third of its occupants when the curtain rose for the second act.)

If those who left would have stuck around they would have experienced the dynamic song and dance number, “Revolting Children,” and the tender, “My House” sung by Jennifer Blood (Miss Honey.)  But, for many, it was much too late.

When I saw MATILDA, THE MUSICAL in London, I left with somewhat the same feeling as I did this time.  I simply don’t know what the British, and then the Broadway reviewers saw in this show that garnered it such widespread critical acclaim.  The show holds the record for the most Olivier Awards (the English equivalent of the Tony) for a musical.  The production was awarded five 2013 Tony Awards, including Best Book for a Musical.  (I can’t believe it won over KINKY BOOTS.)

The story follows Matilda, from birth, as an unwanted and unloved child, to age five.  By this time she had learned to escape her existence by reading books and making up stories which she shares with Mrs. Phelps, the local librarian.  She goes off to school expecting better things, but the kids are put off by her “know it all presence.”  Her teacher, Miss Honey, loves her.  The school principal, Miss Trunchbull, a former Olympian athlete, hates her for being everything she is not.  (Well, to be exact, “everything he is not” as the role is played by cross-dressing David Abeles.)

But, true to all happy ever-after children’s tales, in the end, Miss Honey, who has been swindled out of her inheritance, gets her well-deserved house and possessions back, Matilda gets to live with Miss Honey, and all is well in the world.

Sarah McKinley Austin, who portrayed Matilda the night I saw the show (there are three girls who trade the role) was delightful.  She looked and had the right attitude for Matilda.  She has a nice singing voice and excellent stage presence.

Jennifer Blood was properly compassionate as Miss Honey.  Her rendition of “My House” was emotionally charged.

Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld were properly obnoxious as Matilda’s parents.

David Abeles could have been even more expansive as the dislikable Miss Trunchbull, which would have added much needed humor to the production.

Ryan Christopher Dever was adorable as the troublemaking Bruce.

BTW…there were many very young kids at the production.  This is really not a kids show…much too talky, not enough farcical stuff, and a story line that may be too complicated for the young ‘uns.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The touring production of MATILDA,THE MUSICAL follows the production and staging of the London and Broadway productions.  If only the sound system was better, the kids weren’t screeching in high pitched overly accented British pronunciation, and the orchestra didn’t drown out the speeches of the actors, maybe the results would have been better.  As is, MATILDA, THE MUSICAL, now on tour and housed at the State Theatre, is less than a wonderful theatrical experience. 

Tickets for MATILDA THE MUSICAL, which runs through May 22, 2016 at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to