Matilda The Musical, LA

No sugar-coated tale, this hit from London has a Dickensian sensibility infused with wit.

Book by Dennis Kelly

Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin

Based on the novel by Roald Dahl

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Choreography by Peter Darling

Royal Shakespeare Company

Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

May 29 – July 12, 2015

Honestly, you really do not need a kid in tow to justify going to see “Matilda the Musical.” Great if you have one conveniently at hand; he or she will be forever a convert to live performance. But “Matilda” is a sophisticated treat regardless of your age. Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics are crisp, the acting and dancing from even the youngest cast members is superb. Rob Howell’s set is just as fresh as the rest of the material.

Roald Dahl, the originator of the story, thoroughly gets the terrors of childhood: the bully, losing the love of parents, etc. Five-year-old Matilda (played by Mia Sinclair Jenness on the night of this performance) sings: “When I grow up/ I will be brave enough to fight the creatures/ That you have to fight beneath the bed.”

Rather than sugar-coating his stories, the terrors in Dahl’s tales are met head on with improbable feats of daring and accomplishment performed by kids of extraordinary ability. They have made such books as his “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” enduring favorites.

Matilda Wormwood is born to a couple with extraordinary narcissism. Her mother (Cassie Silva), whose aim in life is to compete in amateur ballroom dancing contests, does not even acknowledge she is nine months pregnant and about to deliver; that would interfere with her competition schedule. Matilda’s father (Quinn Mattfeld) is a crooked car dealer who sports an exaggerated pompadour. When he discovers his new baby “doesn’t have a thing down there” he calls her “boy” forever more, refusing to call her by name. Mr. Wormwood reveres his older, monosyllabic son whose life revolves around the telly (yes this is a British tale). Her mother reveres only herself. Meanwhile precocious little Matilda reads aloud “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,” but no one pays attention. Matilda is an annoyance and an inconvenience to them and they cannot wait until she can be shipped off to boarding school where she will be disabused of her love of reading and all her other nonsense. Only the books and the Earth mother/librarian (Mrs. Phelps, played gustily by Ora Jones) she gets from her provide emotional sustenance.

Indeed, hers is a tale of Dickensian proportions. At school, the headmistress Miss Trunchball (Bryce Ryness — the part is always played by a generously padded male) has one claim to fame: she was the British hammer-throwing champion in the Olympics. She is a piece of work. Matilda’s father has warned Miss Turnball of the problem he is sending her way, and Miss Turnball is committed to squashing Matilda and all the other “maggots” in the school. The worst of times indeed.

While the other children come from homes that leave them singing “My mummy says I’m a miracle. My daddy says I’m his special guy,” Matilda, the truly special kid, has practically been thrown out. Bet you can guess who to put your money on. Matilda has smarts and a moral compass. To use the current psychological jargon, she is a model of resiliency. She is girl power writ large. Fortunately for her, her teacher Miss Honey (a well-cast Jennifer Blood), like Mrs. Phelps, recognizes her extraordinary abilities and goes to bat for Matilda against incredible odds, and despite Miss Honey’s own trepidations. It is an up hill battle.

The level of professionalism demonstrated by the cast is amazing. There are four sets of young actors, so I can only speak for opening night, but their dancing is precise — in a charmingly chaotic way. They are indefatigable. The score is delightful, if not specifically memorable. If I have a bone to pick it is this: many of the rapid-fire words sung by the young voices were difficult to understand. Whether this is the fault of the Ahmanson Theatre acoustics and sound system (which had several misfires opening night) or enunciation I cannot say, but it left me wishing for supertitles at some points.

It is rare to see a production that truly is fit for all ages, however I feel confident saying “Matilda the Musical” fills that bill. The tart approach takes what might be a saccharine story and infuses it with wit at every turn. That said, Kleenex might be a good idea if you have a sensitive youngster alongside.

Karen Weinstein

Los Angeles ,
Weinstein is a clinical psychologist who teaches in the medical school at UCLA. She also holds a master's degree in Urban Studies and has a strong interest in history and architecture, as well as the theater.