New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Matilda the Musical"
The Shubert Theatre, Broadway

How to summarize “Matilda,” a major front-runner this season for the Tonys and other prestigious theater awards. A brief Shakespearean phrase will suffice—“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Nothing but praise is due the production’s technical skills. The lighting, the staging, the choreography, the direction are all highly innovative and top-level. But, alas, it’s down hill from there on. Indeed this is a shock, given the advance notices of the show, the numerous Tony nominations, and the fact that it is co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Nevertheless, the story itself is bitterly disappointing, thoroughly lightweight, and an insult to the charming Roald Dahl tale from which it is adopted. It is the tale of Matilda Wormwood, a little girl who is a book-lover and brilliant to boot. For these very reasons, she is hated by the Wormwoods, a family which feels that culture is best conveyed via telly (as the Brits would say). Thus she is abused by her parents and her equally cruel, oafish school headmistress. Fortunately, she survives, with the help of her kindly teacher.

Does this plot have the potential for a major musical? Apparently not, judging by the results. “Matilda” comes off as silly and trivial, unable to shoulder its monumental responsibilities.

Which brings us on to the performances, here again offered with mixed results. The company of youngsters perform dazzlingly and letter-perfect, dancing its way through the show. The choreography itself (courtesy of Peter Darling) is innovative and quite wonderful.

But how is one to know what’s going on, since not a single word can be understood. And here we come to the words, the meanings, the lines. Milly Shapiro (in the title role the afternoon we attended) has a voice pitched so high that every word is lost. “She might as well be singing in Chinese,” a fellow critic noted to us. Bertie Carvel, as the evil headmistress is quite wonderful in his visual portrayal, but he, too, mutters his lines unintelligibly. The only saving grace in this respect is Lauren Ward as Miss Honey (the good teacher) who sings beautifully, articulates clearly, and acts movingly.

Shapiro alternates her lead role with three other youngsters---Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, and Bailey Ryon). Perhaps they serve the role better, but we’ll never know, since we could hardly bear another exposure to “Matilda.”

How sad that Broadway has reached a stage in which the clever, innovative manipulation of the lighting sends a show hurtling toward stardom!

--Irene Backalenick
May 11, 2013

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