"We are revolting children/Living in revolting times. We sing revolting songs/Using revolting rhymes," they exclaim during their exuberant insurrection. It's one of several deliciously subversive numbers in a show whose strength rests with the well-loved Roald Dahl children's book that inspired it, and with composer/lyricist Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly, who masterfully and faithfully adapted it for the stage.
Minchin's fresh score (uniquely orchestrated by Chris Nightingale) defies categorization. His lyrics, like Kelly's book, range from warmly evocative to acerbic. The former is evident in the lovely "Quiet," which Minchin describes as lying upside down on a bed with "just the sound of your heart in your head." The latter Minchin expresses in the timely "Loud," in which a character observes that it's not what you know that matters, it's the volume at which you express your ignorance at a time when "content has never been less important."
An equal opportunity satirist, Minchin sends up doting parents of "exceptional" children in the wry "Miracle" and TV-obsessed airheads in the amusing "Telly."
But what's most admirable about "Matilda the Musical" is its refusal to pull its punches and its willingness to show us the emotional and psychological toll that cruel, unthinking adults have on children. All of that is reflected in set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec's dark, vaguely ominous set. His rotating, rectangular towers (which recall oversized storybooks) serve as backdrop for lighting/projection designer Driscoll Otto's understated images.
The story centers on the titular Matilda Wormwood (a sprightly Audrey Edwards, who alternates with Warrenville's Natalie Galla). A precocious girl with a quick mind and other special powers, Matilda loves reading, a passion her crass, careless family -- double-dealing dad (Jackson Evans), shallow mom (Stephanie Gibson) and dimwitted older brother (Evan C. Dolan) -- do not share. In fact, they rebuke her, prompting Matilda's clever albeit naughty response.
School proves equally miserable for this pint-size champion for right not might. Presiding over the grim institution is tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Sean Fortunato, who plays the drag role with menacing authenticity and a good amount of relish). She terrorizes students, whom she calls maggots, incarcerating disobedient youngsters in a contraption called The Chokey.
The bright spot is Miss Honey (Eben K. Logan), a good-hearted teacher who recognizes Matilda's prowess. So does the kindly librarian Mrs. Phelps (Linda Bright Clay), who provides a rapt listener for Matilda's stories, including one vivid tale about the love affair between an Escapologist (Paul-Jordan Jansen) and an Acrobat (Lexis Danca).
The performances are solid throughout: from Edward's spunky, self-assurance, to the gleeful garishness evidenced by Evans, Gibson and Dolan to the warmth and affection of Logan's Miss Honey, a shining example of the dedicated educator.
Sebastian's kinetic choreography recalls Bill T. Jones' work for "Spring Awakening" (another musical about "revolting" youngsters). In the exuberant "When I Grow Up," one of the show's high points, he artfully juxtaposes childhood dreams with adult reality. And in Miss Honey's paean to her modest home and Matilda's moving duet with The Escapologist's idealized father, Sebastian creates truly resonant moments.
However, there are times when the concept overwhelms the narrative and the stagecraft -- including revolving stage, shadow images and rotating towers -- becomes a distraction. Also, conductor Christopher Sargent's septet sometimes overpowers the singers, who could mind their diction more carefully.
That said, the spirit of "Matilda" is perfectly clear: a celebration of reading and the magnificent rebellion that knowledge ignites.
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Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. (630) 530-0111 or drurylanetheatre.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through June 23
Running time: About two hours, 45 minutes including intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot adjacent to the theater
Rating: For almost all ages, might be too intense for very young children