On Stage: Waltzing “Matilda”? No Way!

 

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Matilda the Musical might be based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, but its transformation to the stage, a co-presentation of the Pittsburgh CLO summer series and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh, is just as smart as the title character. Woven with darkly-drawn character critters like school headmistress Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents, it nonetheless is balanced by a sharp, biting sense of humor that really defines this Tony Award-winning production.

Right off the bat, the cast launches into a gigantic birthday celebration for children-at-large, fostered by overbearing parents and led by a terrific battalion of kids who belt out Miracle around a large movable table. “My mummy says I’m a miracle.” Soon after: “My daddy says I’m his special little soldier…has my daddy told you, one day when I’m older, I can be a soldier, and shoot you in face?”

It sets the tone for the uncanny wit that that merrily oozes itself into every pore of this production. The cast’s delicious playground is Bob Howell’s set, a gaggle of assorted-sized, Scrabble-like tiles that are given ever-changing splashes of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, mostly in Crayola’s palette of primary colors. Tim Minchin’s score is angular and pointed for the most part, the kind of music that you get when you watch bird documentaries, full of darting movement.

Which brings us to the dance, particularly important in Matilda because, unless you already know the lyrics beforehand, you will have trouble understanding the words. Peter Darling’s choreography and Matthew Warchus’ staging punctuate this visual feast in so many ways.

Who knows where direction ends and choreography begins? The students reveal hidden horrors in School Song while they cleverly insert building blocks into the giant gate. And the swing number is simply soaring. As for the Hammer Song, filled with eye-popping gymnastic tricks, well…

But getting back to the basics of Matilda, centered on a little genius who won’t be cowered by clueless parents who prefer television over reading — mom so ballroom-obsessed (Darcy Stewart) and dad a cheap used car salesman (Brandon McGibbon) —  and a towering Miss Trunchbull, played by David Abeles and bolstered by a tight topknot bun and ample bosom. All were excellent.

But the whole cast is, from the adults who can also don a mean school uniform to the children themselves, who shoulder most of the production, even to moving set pieces and particularly Bruce, the cake eater with a great voice (Ryan Christopher Dever).

You had to love this production as it joins a growing list of musicals that center on girls’ empowerment. Hmm, I’d like to see Matilda go toe-to-toe with Annie and Elphaba.

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