When I visited London around five years ago, I made the grave mistake of choosing Ghost: The Musical over a newer show which I inaccurately assumed as a twee, commercial-friendly children’s spectacle – otherwise known as Matilda, the Musical. Last week, I righted my wrongs by catching the first-rate first National Tour of the show at the Oriental Theatre (now playing through April 10).
The first song – lyrics penned by the subversive Australian comic Tim Minchin – hit on such a nervy topic around modern-day child-rearing, I marveled at how the show – marketed toward children and families – found commercial success.
To illustrate – a birthday party rolls into view, and a handful of (intentionally) precocious children launch into the following:
My mummy says I’m a miracle.
One look at my face, and it’s plain to see.
Ever since the day doc chopped the umbilical cord,
It’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me!
My daddy says I’m his special little soldier.
No one is as bold or tough as me.
Has my daddy told you,
One day when I’m older,
I can be a soldier,
And shoot you in the face?
An adult character observes the farce from the sidelines:
One can hardly move for beauty and brilliance these days.
It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days.
Special-ness seems de rigueur.
Above average is average – go figure.
Is it is some modern miracle of calculus,
That such frequent miracles don’t render each one un-miraculous?
Biting, comedic, topical satire in the *opening* number of a “children’s” show? I instantly fell in love.
And then Matilda comes on the scene. A child who, in every sense of the word, is indeed miraculous. But, in very Roald Dahl-esque fashion, she’s categorically neglected and belittled by vastly unenlightened adults, including her parents (the delightfully despicable Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld) and the school’s headmistress Miss Trunchbull (a scene-stealing David Abeles).
However, Matilda (played by the powerhouse Lily Brooks O’Briant the night I saw the show), is no pushover, mind you. She speaks her mind and relentlessly seeks out truth, even if the truth stings.
Thankfully, a bright spot emerges when Matilda connects with the sweet Miss Honey (an endearing Jennifer Blood), her teacher, who identifies Matilda’s potential, but must confront her own fears in helping Matilda realize them.
While the lessons of persevering in the face of obstacles and taking initiative when the odds are against you are certainly nothing new, the way this particular show approaches this dilemma is somewhat groundbreaking. It does so in a way that’s complex without being complicated – not just in Minchin’s beautifully counter-intuitive score, but in Rob Howell’s dizzying design, Peter Darling’s angular choreography and Matthew Warchus’ direction, which manages to balance off-kilter whimsy with the everyday horrors of reality.
Much like Inside Out, Matilda The Musical doesn’t shy away from difficult and deep emotions — and explores them in a way that’s both entertaining and enlightening. I’d encourage any family – with our without children – to visit Matilda during her all-too short Chicago tenure.