Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Matilda the Musical
National Tour
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Audra McDonald with Seth Rudetsky


Hannah Levinson
Photo by Joan Marcus
Before Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company only produced two book musicals on Broadway, the hugely successful Les Misérables in 1987 and the huge flop Carrie in 1988. After a disaster like Carrie, you can imagine why it took them almost 25 years before bringing another musical to Broadway. Fortunately for the RSC, even though Matilda doesn't quite have the universal emotional appeal of Les Misérables, it is a hugely entertaining family musical that had a healthy run on Broadway and the national tour is just as good as the Broadway production.

Based on the children's novel of the same name by Roald Dahl and with a book by Dennis Kelly and a score by Tim Minchin, Matilda tells the familiar story of a young girl who is misunderstood and unloved but who finds love in books and through her school teacher. While Matilda isn't an orphan, she certainly has a lot in common with other famous musical children like Annie and Oliver in that they are all children looking for love from adults but forced to use their intelligence to get ahead in the world, find love, and to be truly understood.

Young Matilda's parents don't love or understand her; her father often calls her a boy and her mother didn't even know she was pregnant with her, thinking that her large stomach could be cured with penicillin. So Matilda does what a young child in this situation can only do, she escapes from her rotten parents into the world of books and storytelling and through this escape finds a friend in the librarian at her local library. That librarian, Mrs. Phelps, is always excited to see Matilda in order to hear the latest installment in a story Matilda has to tell her and to give her some new books to read. But things get worse when Matilda is sent to school, where the dreaded, sadistic Miss Trunchbull, who thinks all kids are "maggots," is the headmistress. Fortunately, Matilda's sweet but mousy teacher Miss Honey sees the gifts that Matilda has and together they help each other overcome their obstacles and demons.

The cast for the touring production includes three girls who rotate in the role of Matilda. At the performance I attended, Hannah Levinson was Matilda and she delivered a knock out performance. She embodies Matilda with a fearlessness that shows how she is smart but not cocky, fearless, and sassy, yet heartbreaking as well. She is perfectly lovely in the part. As the mean Miss Trunchbull, Dan Chameroy has a ball in playing a sadistic, hateful and enormous character that you love to hate. However, it is a supporting part, so Trunchbull is somewhat missed when she's not on stage. While I wish there was more of Trunchbull in the show I understand that this is Matilda's story and not Trunchbull's—I only wish she had a better send-off than she does. And while little is done to hide the fact that it is a man playing this female character, it doesn't really detract from the overall enjoyment of the show.

Other notable parts include Jennifer Bowles as Miss Honey, the school teacher who takes Matilda under her wing. She more than holds her own against Chameroy and creates a touching and effective character that you root for, just as you do for Matilda. Bowles is also extremely lovely, not only with Levinson but with the children in the ensemble as well, and she has a lovely voice that she gets to show off on several songs. Matt Harrington is hilarious and even a bit touching as Matilda's father, while Darcy Stewart is a hoot as Matilda's self-absorbed mother.

The ensemble is quite effective as well, especially the children in the cast. They are used throughout the show in very inventive ways and manage to create individual characters that can be identified with. Like Chameroy and the rest of the cast, they seem to be having a ball being in this show.

The score by Tim Minchin includes many memorable songs, including Matilda's first act solo "Naughty" and the second act opener "When I Grow Up" that you'll be humming for days after you come out of the theatre. While most of the songs for Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull lack memorable music, most of their lyrics are clever and effective.

The entire creative Broadway team recreates their efforts for this tour. Director Matthew Warchus has conjured up a fantastic, almost imaginary world for us to visit and Dahl's characters, while a bit cartoonish and very over the top, manage to get across the message that love can conquer all in the end. Warchus received a Tony nomination for his efforts which was well deserved due to the continually energetic nature of the show, his effective use of the children in the cast, and the incorporation of the storytelling aspect of the book with the original and creative choreography by Peter Darling. Darling's upbeat salsa moves for "Loud" are hilarious while showing off the skilled moves of the cast.

Set designer Rob Howell won a Tony for his magical set and while his tour design is somewhat pared back from the Broadway production, where it looked as if colorful cartoon style Scrabble tiles had exploded all over the set walls and proscenium and covered every possible nook and cranny with pop up set elements including the desks in the classroom. His tour set still holds many magical effects, including the Scrabble motif, with random letters all over the drops, flats and show curtain that let you try to find hidden words scattered throughout, such as "quiet" in the library setting or "time" on the clock hands. His costumes effectively use vibrant colors for the more cartoonish characters yet simple colors for Matilda and Mrs. Honey.

While this is an enjoyable show I still have a few quibbles. Even though she is the title character, Matilda is occasionally pushed a little into the background. There are several times when the ensemble is singing together, or in the storytelling segments when Matilda and another character are speaking in unison, and you really can't make out what they are saying. The same could be said of about 10% of the dialogue, where either the thick English accents the cast are using or the sound design basically make the dialogue unintelligible. Also, as I mentioned above, Trunchbull doesn't really get the grand exit she deserves and, while Miss Honey is lovely, we spend a little too much time with her character than we should, since this is supposed to be Matilda's story.

But there is much to like, including the frenzied choreography and frantic pace and the loving touches throughout in costumes, set and direction. And, spoilers ahead, I clearly appreciated the unsentimental ending with Matilda and her father, so happy they didn't decide to sugar-coat that part and left it exactly the way it should have been.

While Matilda may not be the greatest musical ever created it does hit many high notes, including colorful, over the top characters that are easily identifiable, a creative set, a cast that throws themselves into the material, a score and book that have many memorable moments, and direction that manages to hold everything together while delivering many laughs and even a few tears.

Matilda the Musical runs through February 12th, 2017, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit us.matildathemusical.com/tour.

Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Dennis Kelly
Based on the book by Roald Dahl
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Scenic and Costume Design: Rob Howell
Choreography by Peter Darling
Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design by Simon Baker
Orchestrations, additional music and musical supervision: Christopher Nightingale

Cast:
Matilda: Hannah Levinson
Miss Honey: Jennifer Bowles
Miss Trunchbull: Dan Chameroy
Mr. Wormwood: Matt Harrington
Mrs. Wormwood: Darcy Stewart
Mrs. Phelps: Keisha T. Fraser
Michael Wormwood: Darren Burkett
Rudolpho: Stephen Diaz
Sergei: Eric Craig
The Escape Artist: Justin Packard
The Acrobat: Kim Sava
Tommy: Jordan Hall
Bruce: Aiden Bushey
Nigel: Will Coombs
Hortensia: Heidi Friese
Lavender: Riley OÂ’Donnell
Alice: Brittany Nicholas
Amanda: Isabella Stuebing
Ensemble: Jacqueline Burtney, Cameron Burke, Jacqueline Burtney, Eric Craig, Stephen Diaz, Marisa Kennedy, Anthony MacPherson, Gray Monczka, Justin Packard, Kim Sava


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