Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ makes a seamless move to the stage
BOSTON – Perhaps one of the reasons Roald Dahl was one of the greatest writers of children’s books is that he never treated his readers as children.
Instead of avoiding issues that the child might be confronting in real life — mean, abusive parents, loneliness, bullying – he confronted them head-on.
His book “Matilda” about a young girl struggling to find her way in an uncaring world eventually made its way to the big screen and then to the stage.
In the national tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s and The Dodgers’ production of “Matilda, the Musical,” now at the Boston Opera House through June 26, the darkness of Dahl’s work has been leavened a bit in Dennis Kelly’s Tony-winning book, but the tale loses none of its lustre.
The play has scaled back Matilda’s telekinertic powers somewhat, which here seem to be just another facet of her personality, albeit a very useful one when push comes to shove.
The five-year-old girl with a keen intellect fights to even be acknowledged in a home where ignorance is king and a father is proud that all he knows or needs to know he got from the “telly.”
Three young women share the role of Matilda Wormwood and at a recent peerformance, it was nine-year-old Sarah McKinley Austin’s turn, and she was supremely confident and eventually triumphant in the role
The characters of Matilda’s mother and father were harrowing in the book, and have been softened a bit around the edges. Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) is a dance-obssessed twit who was irate when she found out she was pregnant with Matilda because she was forced to miss an important dance contest with her paetner Rudolpho (Stephen Diaz). Mr. Wormwood (Brandon McGibbon) is a small-time con man and hood who derides Matilda’s desire to read and cannot even be bothered to acknowlege that the child he keeps calling a “he” is actually a girl.
Brother Michael Wormwood (Darren Burkett) is no great shakes in any way but is the rotten apple in the eye of Mr. Wormwood.
Matilda finds refuge at the library, where the librarian Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser) is captivated by Matilda’s gift for story-telling.
She also finds a kindred soul in her loving teacher, Miss Honey (Paula Brancati). Alas, Miss Honey operates under the thumb of the headmaster, Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy), a former hammerthrowing champ and a kind of female Paul Lynde on steroids who terrorizes the students and Miss Honey alike.
It has seemingly become a tradition for a male to play the role, much like the role of Mrs. Turnblad in “Hairspray,” and Chameroy’s gloriously-over-the-top portrayal includes incessant threats of students being tossed into “the chokey,” a narrow cupboard replete with spikes and nails where rebellious students are sent.
Matilda’s fellow students are also a glorious lot, led by Ryan Christoper Dever as Bruce, the subject of the first act closing number “Bruce.” “When I Grow Up” is a second-act standout production number complete with huge hanging swings, and the climactic “Revolting Kids” is a tribute to those who dare to question authority when it is necessary.
The score by Tim Minchim bristles with energy, with the tunes closely intertwined with the story.
The fabulous production values – it appears no expense was spared in bringing them on tour – help bring “Matilda” to spectacular life. Rob Howell’s scenic design and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting both won Tony Awards, with Howell’s cascade of books surrounding the stage a tribute to Matilda’s love for reading, and Vanstone’s lighting sets the mood for both the upbeat and darker scenes.
The superb choreography by Peter Darling includes intricate, acrobatic, free-flowing numbers with children and adults alike, and Matthew Warchus’ direction ties it all together
“Matilda” won a then-record seven Olivier awards in London before the transfer to Broadway, where it copped four Tony awards.
It is a joyous tribute to a literary classic that is bound to spur another generation of young readers to discover Dahl, whose “The BFG,” by the way, is about to be released as a movie.
The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers production of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the Musical.” Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and lyrics by Tim Minchem. Directed by Matthew Warchus. At the Opera House, Washington Street, Boston, through June 26. broadwayinboston.com.