Theater review: ‘Matilda’ explores the cost of freedom


It’s clear that Roald Dahl had Dickens on the brain when he wrote “Matilda,” the story of the precocious little girl with the horrible parents and the school mistress who likens children to maggots.

While her gaudy, clownlike parents and her dullard brother engage in lowly pursuits like watching TV, Matilda immerses herself in literature, and it is the alphabet that becomes both her refuge and her weapon.

In the end, Matilda will transcend her Dickensian childhood by virtue of her imagination, and magic.

Based on Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel, “Matilda: The Musical” arrived at the Fox Theatre this week, and it is a work of art that will appeal to the beaten-up kid inside us all.

RELATED: ‘Matilda’ musical heads to Fox Theatre with edginess of original book

With a fantastical design vocabulary that substitutes the confections of Dahl’s famous “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with towering stacks of books and letters of the alphabet, “Matilda: The Musical” is a product of a Goth-punk continuum that connects Dickens and Dostoyevsky to “Wicked” and “Spring Awakening.”

It may not be possessed of the time-honored, boy-gets-girl formula that has informed musical comedy down through the ages, but there is a dark love story at its core nonetheless. It was the genius of Dahl to make it appear that Matilda is a fabulist who spins a Scheherazade-like tale to escape her misery (and delight librarian Mrs. Phelps). Ultimately, there’s a dazzling, 11th-hour, aha moment that connects the dots and solves the mystery.

Yes, I’m being careful not to reveal the 411 on Miss Trunchbull (the magnificent Dan Chameroy) and Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles), the sweet teacher whose role it is to rescue Matilda from her cheesy used-car salesman father (Matt Harrington), garish competitive ballroom dancer mom (Darcy Stewart) and brother, Michael (Darren Burkett).

But Dennis Kelly’s Tony Award-winning book and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics are faithful to the spirit of Dahl, and director Matthew Warchus assembles a terrific 31-member ensemble.

It’s also easy to see why Rob Howell’s sets and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting picked up Tonys. (Howell also designed the costumes, which are equally fierce.)

Jenna Weir, who played the pint-size Matilda Wormwood on Wednesday night’s official opening, is an astonishingly fine actor and singer, a miracle of steely self-control and stealthy power. Weir (who alternates with Gabby Gutierrez and Jaime MacLean) is seriously good as the poised trickster responsible for the capers involving her idiot father’s coiffure and chapeau. (Harrington’s physical shtick in those episodes is hysterical, as are the silly shenanigans of Mrs. Wormwood’s dance partner, Rudolpho, played to the hilt by Stephen Diaz.)

Bowles makes for a lovely Miss Honey, but it’s Chameroy who walks off with the show, as the incorrigible Miss Trunchbull. With her hair in a bun and her posture slightly bent by the weight of anger and age, “Trunch” packs her bulbous physique into a trenchcoat, terrorizing the young man who dares sneak a piece of her chocolate cake. (That would be Soren Miller as Bruce.)

While I sat appreciatively drinking in the tale, which at times can feel as convoluted as it is brilliant, it wasn’t until the Act 2 number “When I Grow Up” that the show really hit me.

It is a song of dreaming, yearning and the inevitable pangs of being: When I grow up, I will be tall enough to reach the branches that I need to reach to climb the trees you get to climb when you’re grown up.

As choreographed by Peter Darling (“Billy Elliot”), the young kids teeter on swings; then the big kids take over. They swing so hard that their feet fly over the orchestra pit and almost seem to skim the heads of audience members.

We see these same shades of Bill T. Jones’ choreography for “Spring Awakening” in the buoyant finale, “Revolting Children.” In escaping tyranny, all the angst of youth has turned to untethered joy. They are free. But it has come at a price.

Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it,

If you always take it on the chin and wear it, nothing will change.

Whoa. Let that sink in for a moment. The message of “Matilda” could not come at a better moment.

THEATER REVIEW

“Matilda: The Musical”

Grade: A-

Through April 23. 7:30 p.m. April 20; 8 p.m. April 21-22; 2 p.m. April 22; 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 23. $33.50-$128.50. Presented by Broadway in Atlanta. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org/matilda.

Bottom line: Just right.



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