For a show about minds, this musical certainly has a lot of heart.
“Matilda,” the musical adaptation of a Roald Dahl story of the same title, was a hit on Broadway, where it ran for almost four years before closing on the first day of this year. It also has five Tony Awards to its credit.
The national touring production, which has been on the road for two years, opened an eight-performance run at Bass Hall on Tuesday and served as a reminder of why it has been such a favorite with audiences around the globe.
This musical features a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the witty and enormously talented composer who is also responsible for the stage version of “Groundhog Day,” which is currently attracting a lot of attention on Broadway.
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This touring production, which had some problems in its early going, has now been polished to a glowing sheen and comes closer to matching the incredible staging and performances it offered on Broadway.
That is not much of a surprise, given that director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling are the same team who did the show on Broadway. Also, some of the cast members, including Jennifer Bowles as the sweet (but mousey) Miss Honey, and Matt Harrington as Matilda’s vile and proudly ignorant father, Mr. Wormwood, are also veterans of the Broadway production.
“Matilda” tells the story of a precocious 5-year-old who is bullied and browbeaten by her low-rent parents and a tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy). Among her few allies are Miss Honey and her school’s librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser), who lives to hear Matilda tell her stories. (Note: At the Wednesday performance seen for this review, the title role was played by Jaime MacLean, who is one of three young actresses who will be playing that part during the run.)
Matilda’s enemies try to stymie her desire to learn at every turn. So, in addition to her boundless cleverness, Matilda develops some extrasensory powers as a defense against the small-mindedness of the adults around her. The result is a take-no-prisoners battle between the dark forces of anti-intellectualism and the shining light of a child’s lust for learning — which makes this show unexpectedly timely and topical. So there are some dark corners in this script. But it also brims with sharply pointed humor, and heartstrings-tugging sentimentality.
This production looks and sounds great. Music director Bill Congdon and his pit ensemble provide superb support for the performers, who play their comedy as well as they sing their songs. The cast sparkles from top to bottom, and the players especially give the show’s big production numbers all the oomph they deserve.
The only slight problem that some first-time patrons may have with this show is understanding the lyrics. The young players, who were especially difficult to hear clearly in the early days of this tour, have now dropped their British accents (the adults keep theirs). That robs the show of some of its flavor, but it does make the youngsters come through a bit more clearly. It often takes a sharp ear, however, to keep track of Minchin’s rapid-fire lyrics, no matter who is singing.
But even if you might not catch every word said or sung in this production, you can’t miss its emotions. It is in that realm that this show, and its stars, shines the brightest.