Imagine a rather magical, cartoonish world wherein school children are viewed as maggots (or a world with no children at all as one hell-born head mistress would prefer), an existence where reading is viewed as “abnormal” and “idiotic”, wherein mothers deem “looks more important than books” (then again that kind of mindset exists right here in Hollywood), a universe where educators profess that in order to teach, a child one must first break a child, and a continuum wherein parents name their children Matilda Wormwood and Bruce Bogtrotter and you’ve got the Roald Dahl written, Dennis Kelly adapted and Tim Michin scored Matilda.
Based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same title, the live musical is just as visually stunning as the pictures one formulates in one’s head while perusing its pages, and at times even more striking than the film released in 1996 starring Rhea Perlman, Danny Devito and Mara Wilson.
It is a lively late afternoon on the terrace in front of the sold out Ahmanson theatre as mothers, children, babies and celebrities alike alight the concrete non-red carpet (and gawk in kind) in front of the photo tarp for a pre-show parade to be reckoned with. Included in the mix, Nip/Tuck’s Roma Maffia (aka anesthesiologist Liz with the heart of gold), Yara Shahidi (aka Zoe) from the runaway TV smash hit Black-ish, Jack Black (children in tow), and some adorable infant/ambient audience member who will squawk briefly in perfect punctuation at a couple precise places once Matilda embarks on the journey to prove her heroine-ship the house over!
As the lights come up on the first act to discordant birthday tunage, all manner of seemingly proud, vain, and even loved children intone that they are their parents’ treasures. All the while and unbeknownst to these privileged petite persons, another little nugget is in the process of making her own entry into the world as the tarp behind which her mother will soon toil traverses downward upon the stage.
“Gas” is the immediate self-diagnosis of the whale-sized Mrs. Wormwood but her doctor will inform her otherwise. (And that’s good because she also smokes copiously throughout her labor and there’s no worse combination than gas and smoke…aside from pregnancy that is…) “But I’ve got a baby. I don’t need another,” she protests to the medical professionals. Her only obsession at this point: attending the Bi-Annual Ballroom Salsa Dancing competition. (Well it’s nice to have life-affirming hobbies at the expense ofone’s life giving procreational career.) The true focal point of her fixation however lies in her dancing partner, the swarthy and southern- Hemisphere-accented Rudolpho. (Ah well it’s nice to have never-to-be-actualized dreams. ‘Cause how anyone named Rudolpho could ever be interested in anyone named Mrs. Wormwood, to speak nothing of her countenance and harpy-like intonations, particularly in compromise to his own evident self interest is beyond me and anyone else in witness!)
Mrs. Wormwood’s reaction to the impending birth of her daughter notwithstanding, once Mr. Wormwood gets wind of said blessed event, he can only scoff at his hoped-for son’s lack of “franks n’ beans”. (Oh yeah, get a gust o’ that!)
Jump to Matilda’s fifth year on this planet (or one such in a parallel universe as the fashions are not commensurate with our existing present day) as she reads beyond her years on the most utilitarian and uncomfortable chair in the living room. Her mother, still put upon by her domestic duties can only utter objections such as, “Dinner doesn’t microwave itself!” Her dear old dad still hurls the word “boy” her direction all the while (for the purposes of this scene anyway) waiving his princess pink Barbie Phone (with the pink pom pom on the end of its antenna) her direction!
Matilda, wise beyond her years, has already realized she comes from idiotic stock and takes it in stride. But not before some deliciously meditatively executed pranks played on her father, much to the gleeful delight of children and adult children the audience over!
Once in school Matilda regales the school librarian Mrs. Phelps with stories of her own (and even ethereal intrigue quite possibly forwarding the plot). At home such conversation would transpire as follows:
Matilda-Would you like me to read you a story?
Dad-Don’t be disgusting!
She also meets the sweet and gentle tutelage of Miss Honey taking like a fish to water to her loving and honest educational sensibilities, befriends Lavender who informs her they are now the best of friends, ingeniously saves a number of students (save Bruce Bogtrotter whom she can only cheer on, but really he had those copious crumbs of chocolate cake coming) from the wrath of Miss Trunchbull, the evil head mistress, and upon further exercising or would that be exorcising her brain, actualizes some additional and impressive otherworldly skills of her own i.e. telekinesis!
Reminiscent of one part Harry Potter, a second part Annie (can we say Miss Hannigan?), a slice of The Sound of Music, Stephen King’s “Firestarter”-minus any and all infernos (save that of Mrs. Wormwood’s perpetually and symbolically lit cigarette), and Pink Floy’s The Wall, this little girl’s got her anti-institutional exertion cut out for her!
And now a brief aside: Not accustomed to viewing theatrical productions with children peppering the audience, while quiet and well behaved for the most part, the 4D experience this provoked was truly refreshing to behold. Upon the bovinely “beautiful” Miss Trunchbull’s bellowing, “You have just made a big mistake,” to Matilda at a key and pivotal instance in the piece, a baby will let out a positively punctuating squawk, then again, as if on cue, at a later Miss Trunchbull utterance. I certainly hope they were paying that kid, ‘cause the audience certainly laughed and lapped it up both times!!!
Despite certain pain and discomfort in being exposed to such numerous allusions of child abuse (also being very well aware that in reality no child would escape it in such a balanced and miraculous fashion as our lead heroine—and though some of the telekinetic effects could have been more noticeable and magical, this was a bang-up production over all and otherwise! From the set and costume design by Rob Howell, to lighting by Hugh Vanstone, to sound design by Simon Baker all is an indisputable feast for the eyes, ears and senses, to speak nothing of the performance itself! Mia Sinclair Jenness is tenacious and self-assured as the young Matilda, to speak nothing of her comedic timing which is impeccable—particularly when she reacts to a particularly strange and/or idiotic adult. Cassie Silva plays a mean and wonderfully brassy and tacky Mrs. Wormwood—when you get right down to brass tacks! Quinn Mattfeld as Mr. Wormwood is buffoonishly cartoonish, to speak nothing of his son, the monosyllabically mimicking Michael Wormwood (reminiscent just a skosh of The Family Guy’s Chris Griffin, were he skinny and not-quite-so flaxen-haired.) Evan Gray is most delicious and bombastic as the chocolate cake eating Bruce Bogtrotter! Jennifer Blood as Miss Honey makes us all pine for more innocent elementary days with her sweet and gentle cadence and delivery. Ora Jones as Mrs. Phelps is like your favorite childhood story teller only she listens just as entertainingly! Kaci Walfall as the steadfast and enthusiastic Lavender is simply adorable. Jaquez Andre Sims as Rudolpho is wonderfully Rico Suave-esque and appropriately campy! Ian Michael Stuart as the sincere and concerned doctor in the first act and the equally earnest Sergei in the second, shows a wonderful lot of exceptional charm and versatility under his heavy 1930s gangster hat in the second act and his handsome and irresistible smile in the first—(a doctor all the ladies dream of, save screaming siren Cassandra Wormwood). And Miss Trunchbull oho lest we forget ballsy, billowy Miss Trunchbull in all her grandiloquent glory played as only she can be, by the unfairer sex in all her unfairness in the name of Bryce Ryness. At first I was afraid I would not enjoy her portrayal by a man but that only lasted about two lines. Mr. Ryness swiftly won me over with not only his wry sense of delivery, dainty bull in a China Shoppish calisthenics and his intimidating demeanor, to speak nothing of his surprisingly good figure for a woman of his uh…disposition. At times it was Trunchbull who stole the show, and she would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those confounded adorable kids!!!
Matilda runs at the Ahmanson Theatre until July 12th.
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