Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Girl Power: 'Matilda' an Imaginative and Inspiring Ode to Wonderfully "Revolting Children" -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Matilda: The Musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 10

"To teach the child we must first break the child."
-- stated by Matilda's school principal Miss Trunchbull

"If you always take it on the chin and wear it
You might as well be saying you think that it's OK
And that's not right
And if it's not right, you have to put it right"
-- sung by Matilda in the song "Naughty"

Like previous great musicals about children--Oliver, Annie, Billy Elliot--Matilda, which belongs in the same sentence, features kids who are spunky, idealistic, precocious, British (excepting Annie) and resolved to battle belittling, authoritarian and/or otherwise oppressive forces.

So while it should--and on Tuesday night in Chicago, did--bring a sizable showing of youngsters to the theater, the inherent allegory about standing up against those who would hold you down should resonate with children of every age. Like 47 or 76 or 29 or 88.

The three touring Matildas. Sarah McKinley Austin (center)
starred in the performance I attended; pictured with
Savannah Grace Elmer David and Lily Brooks O'Briant.
Though I wasn't previously familiar with Roald Dahl's beloved 1988 novel on which the musical is based, I loved Matilda: The Musical when I saw it in London in 2013--after passing it up in its nascent West End days in 2011 for, of all things, the truly dreadful Ghost: The Musical--and found it just as good on a National Tour that is playing Chicago's Oriental Theatre for 3 weeks. (Matilda continues to run in London, as well as on Broadway where it opened in 2013.)

With the character of Matilda--a brilliant young girl whose moronic parents call her a boy and far worse--onstage for most of the musical's 2-1/2 hours, three "Tour-tildas" (see the nearby photo and Tribune's Chris Jones' delightful video interview) play the part on a rotating basis.

On the Tuesday beginning the second week of the Chicago run, with a largely full balcony suggesting that the family-friendly show likely should've been booked here longer, Sarah McKinley Austin and her striking blue eyes handled the title role.


Several other children in the cast were also terrific, as were the adults, including Quinn Mattfeld as Matilda Wormwood's conniving father, Cassie Silva as her banal, ballroom dance contest obsessed mother, Jennifer Blood as Matilda's teacher Miss Honey, Chicago stage vet Ora Jones as a kindly librarian and David Abeles as Matilda's cruel principal, Miss Trunchbull.

As illustrated by the quotes at top, the manly, malevolent Miss Trunchbull and Matilda's own parents rain down all sorts of nastiness, but she and her schoolmates fight back with aplomb and resiliency through songs like "Naughty," "Bruce," "When I Grow Up" and "Revolting Children."

Those tunes highlight the rock-infused score by composer/lyricist Tim Minchin, which I find reminiscent of Spring Awakening, another modern musical about youthful repression and rebellion, albeit focusing on teenagers.

Though the other numbers move the story along nicely, and "This Little Girl" sung by Jennifer Blood as Miss Honey is rather touching, the relatively few demonstrably terrific tunes serve to keep Matilda from quite the musical heights of Oliver or Annie.

But as with Billy Elliot, there is much truly inspired staging, including the use of playground swings on the fabulous "When I Grow Up," which has young kids being switched out mid-song for older kids, and even an adult or two.

It's always understandable to wonder if the production values of short-run tour stops are watered down from what audiences see in London and New York; I only saw Matilda in the former and don't have the memory to vouch for any exactitude, but with the show's original director Matthew Warchus at the helm, I noticed nothing notably deficient.

Kids speaking, and singing in unison, with British accents make catching all of Minchin's witty lyrics and book writer Dennis Kelly's frequently acidic dialogue a bit tough, particularly up in the balcony--even for those of us who prepped by listening to the cast album on Spotify.

If time allows, I would strongly recommend doing just that, especially to familiarize young attendees with the music, just as many seemed to be with Dahl's story.

To their credit, the show's producers included a crib sheet into the Playbill that defines terms like "chokey," which is a particularly heinous means of punishment used by Principal Trunchbull.

Just another aspect of how Matilda: The Musical goes a bit beyond the norm, not only in the entertainment it provides, but the lessons it tries to teach.

As the program also reveals, the song "Revolting Children" comes late in the show, even more brilliant for following the menacing Trunchbull calling the schoolkids maggots and exhorting that they are revolting.

To which, the children--led by the vociferously reading, clairvoyantly storytelling Matilda--lyrically agree, in a show that should inspire anyone, from 5 to 105, to fight the powers that be.

Or at least aspire to.

"We are revolting children
Living in revolting times
We sing revolting songs
Using revolting rhymes
We'll be revolting children
'Til our revolting's done
And we'll have the Trunchbull

We're revolting!"

-- "Revolting Children"

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