Stage review: 'Matilda' brings girl power to the Benedum
The national touring company of the hit musical provides a showcase for talented preteen performers.
June 6, 2016 1:56 PM
The Broadway cast of "Matilda the Musical," which is coming to the Benedum Center next year.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When you hear dark comic thriller, a children’s story isn’t the first thing that comes to mind — unless the source is Roald Dahl, creator of Willy Wonka, “The Witches” and the soon-to-be-seen-onscreen “The BFG.” His “Matilda,” published in 1988, is a revenge fantasy featuring horrid adults who don’t stand a chance against a brilliant and determined 5-year-old girl.
The stage version out of London, “Matilda the Musical,” goes gleefully to the dark places Mr. Dahl ventured to in his books, creating a devilishly charming entertainment and a platform for an array of preteen talent.
The musical will close on Broadway in January, but the national tour marches onward. It arrived at the Benedum Center last week, spreading its message that intelligence can be empowering, transformative and, sometimes magical.
Matilda the Musical
Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: Through June 12. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Contact: trustarts.org or 412-456-6666.
The first Harry Potter book was published nearly 10 years after “Matilda,” and the influence would be obvious even if author J.K. Rowling had not cited Mr. Dahl’s work as an inspiration. For the musical, director Matthew Warchus, book writer Dennis Kelly and songwriter Tim Minchin have done some direct dialing into Mr. Dahl’s macabre vision of family values.
On the surface, “Matilda” is a revenge fantasy against tyrannical adults — dreadful parents and the heinous headmistress Miss Trunchbull. A kind librarian and timorous teacher who recognize Matilda’s gifts represent the best of the adult world in Mr. Dahl’s child’s-eye view, where it’s up to a 5-year-old to put the bullies in their places and write her own happy ending.
It’s one thing to write a child hero; it’s quite another to present children onstage in dark situations, where they are threatened with torture by the towering David Abeles as Miss Trunchbull. The role is a sight gag in itself, and Mr. Abeles’ adds withering expressions that can be appreciated from the upper decks. The character, a former champion hammer thrower, is fond of reciting the school motto: “Children Are Maggots.”
To become her nemesis Matilda, a youngster must possess the poise of a stage veteran, which 9-year-old Sarah McKinley Austin does, having toured with the musical “Once.” Sarah, one of three who rotate in the role, on Friday carried the weight of solos over a 20-piece orchestra. She also delivered on long monologues as she tells a heartbreaking story — manifested through visual tricks and Simon Baker’s award-winning lighting design — to a rapt librarian (Keisha T. Fraser).
Youngsters in the audience are surely inspired by seeing a cast of kids performing their hearts out to choreography by Peter Darling (Tony winner for “Billy Elliot”) — and perhaps by Matilda Wormwood, who reads Dostoyevsky for fun. The doltish parents who degrade their bookish girl are among the showiest roles in showbiz. Making the most of them are Brandon McGibbon as con artist Harry and Darcy Stewart as Matilda’s mother, whose sole purpose is to dance with the sleazy Rudolpho (Michael Graceffa).
Mr. Minchin employs lyrics that drip with irony and pop culture cleverness, but it isn’t always easy to make them out amid all the high-pitched voices, plus the use of British accents and idioms (note the glossary insert in your program). It’s worth it, though, to find some time with songs such as “Naughty.” In her early stages of revolt, Matilda sings of “innocent victims” Jack and Jill and wonders, “Why they didn’t just change their story?”
The clever girl pranks her father to thwart his crooked business deal. She also inspires her classmates to revolt against Miss Trunchbull and champions her beloved teacher, the sheepish and sweet-voiced Miss Honey (Paula Brancati), who harbors a deep hurt from her earliest childhood.
Never fear, it’s Matilda to the rescue, an outcome as inevitable as it is satisfying.
Word of caution: “Matilda the Musical” can be a long night to the theater and home again with the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Pirates in town.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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