Theater Review: Matilda the Musical Is Sweetly Subversive and Secretly Heady | Arts

Theater Review: Matilda the Musical Is Sweetly Subversive and Secretly Heady

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PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS
  • photo by Joan Marcus
Matilda the Musical
★★★★
Through Sunday, May 28
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh


We not only have the power to tell our stories and those the wide world hands us; we can edit and rewrite them as well. Count those among the heady takeaways from Matilda the Musical, the sweetly subversive musical whose kinetic, touring Royal Shakespeare Company production closes Sunday at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, courtesy of North Carolina Theatre and Broadway Series South.

Adaptor Dennis Kelly’s 2010 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel is a broadside against a number of present-day discontents, and satirical songwriter Tim Minchin’s lyrics are the works of a modern Molière. It’s an auspicious sign of things to come when the first act opener, “Miracle,” deftly takes on the pre-K version of American exceptionalism. After gazing at a group of over-privileged brats, a children’s party performer dryly asks, “Is it some modern miracle of calculus/ That such frequent ‘miracles’ don’t render each one un-miraculous?”

In a later slam on modern political shrillness, one vapid character insists, “What you know matters less/ Than the volume with which what you don’t know is expressed,” before concluding, “The less you have to sell, the harder you sell it!/ The less you have to say, the louder you yell it!”

Such addled insights accompany the title character, a precocious young girl unfortunate enough to be born into a family where fraud, narcissism, and conveniently pre-packaged culture and food are valued above all. Matilda’s dad is a entrepreneur-grifter scheming to rip off Russian businessmen; her mom is a bleach blond more concerned with her looks and her ballroom dance career than her daughter’s well-being.

And so, in Dahl’s warped world, an impressionable young girl is largely raised by the authors she reads at the local library. Their number includes Austen, Dickens, and Dostoevsky, and their influences start to manifest in relatively short order. We see them in the cliffhangers Matilda solemnly tells to keep librarian Mrs. Phelps on tenterhooks. Since these writers also inform Matilda’s sense of social justice, they give her uncommon resources to confront the small-minded cruelties she encounters at home and Crunchem Hall, a school run more like a detention facility.

Under Matthew Marchus’s direction, Gabby Gutierrez proves utterly unsinkable in the title role, easily the equal of Matt Harrington’s boorish dad and Darcy Stewart’s self-obsessed mom. Dan Chameroy digs into the drag role of the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull, while Jennifer Bowles and Keisha T. Fraser support as Matilda’s true advocates, her teacher, Miss Honey, and Mrs. Phelps.

Though Mitchell Tracey’s sound mix occasionally buried Minchin’s lyrics on opening night, a cast of children actors including Gabby Beredo as Matilda’s friend, Lavender, made Peter Darling’s martial classroom choreography pop. Though the characters are broadly written, the moral is still sharp; if you don’t like the story you’re in, rewrite it. A certain first-grader I know can show you how.


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