Roald Dahl was a writer of frightful brilliance.
Here are some of the things that befall small children in Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) and Dennis Kelly’s (book) frightfully spot-on stage adaptation of Dahl’s ”Matilda”
They get their ears ripped off.
— They are spun around by their ponytails and hurled like dead weights from great heights.
— They are forced to eat an entire chocolate cake in under two minutes.
— They are locked in small closets filled with broken glass and nails.
— They are subjected to Phys Ed.
If all of that sounds gruesome, trust and believe that “Matilda” is actually very pro-child. And while the book is over 30 years old, it is one of the most scathing explorations of mindless Internet-surfing since the advent of Facebook. As Matlida’s garishly vain, peroxide-for-brains mother insists, “Content has never been less important.”
When: Through June 23
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
The Drury Lane Theatre’s staging, directed with a keen eye for the monstrous (and the monstrously funny) by Mitch Sebastian, lives up to Dahl’s 1988 book. And while Sebastian has a marvelous ensemble cast, this is a show that belongs as much to Sean Fortunato’s fiendishly hilarious headmistress Miss Trunchbull as it does to young Matilda (Audrey Edwards opening night; Natalie Galla at some performances).
To hear Fortunato sneeringly threaten to hang some adorable moppet upside down until their internal organs drip from their nose into jars, is to appreciate in full Dahl’s utter refusal to condescend to children with a world of unicorns and rainbow glitter. Trunchbull believes children are in league with Satan. And maybe also the Russian Mafia. That might sound over-the-top, but anyone who has survived middle school P.E. knows that school can be a place of ruthless cruelties and adult creatures of terrifying perplexities.
Kind, compassionate educators such as the lovely Miss Honey (Eben K. Logan) can be lifelines, but bullies generally have a knack for finding ways to inflict misery nonetheless. And rarely has the musical world seen a bully of such sheer, terrorizing bloviation as Miss Trunchbull. Fortunato instills her with a villainy that makes the sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket” look like Mary Poppins. Listen for “The Hammer,” wherein she relives her glory as former Olympic champion hammer thrower. It is truly one of the best comic numbers to grace a stage this season. Perhaps this year. Perhaps ever.
Miss Trunchbull’s untrammeled turpitude makes “Matilda” all the more satisfying. Dahl penned one of literature’s great comeuppances for Miss Trunchbull and for bullies in general. When intelligence and kindness triumph, it’s a lovely moment.
Matilda’s parents are also ridiculously awful. They treat reading as a crime and the bookish Matilda as a criminal freak. With the spectacular soft-shoe number “Telly,” Mr. Wormwood (Jackson Evans) and his oafish, over-praised son Michael (Evan C. Dolan) sing the praises of the idiot box, gleefully insisting that the bigger the screen, the smarter the man. As for Mrs. Wormwood (Stephanie Gibson), she’s too busy twisting knickers with her overheated Italian tango partner (Alex Benoit), to bother with her Dostoevsky-reading daughter.
Thus when Mr. Wormwood leaves Matilda in the sadistic clutches of Miss Trunchbull, Matilda is on her own. Well, not entirely. In addition to the sympathetic Miss Honey, Matilda has enchanted the local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Linda Bright Clay). And once the rest of the kids in the class realize the threat that Miss Trunchbull presents, they rally together with an “I-Am-Spartacus” sense of community that’s a joy to behold.
Mitchell’s cast – which includes an ensemble of roughly a dozen children – does a uniformly bang-up job delivering the intricate, often densely-worded score. “Revolting Children” is a showstopper worthy of “Spring Awakening,” and shows off Sebastian’s spiky choreography to fine effect. “When I Grow Up” is that number’s opposite, a lament from sad children desperately hoping everything will be better when they’re bigger. There’s similar yearning to Miss Honey’s “This Little Girl,” which Logan fills with warmth and wonder.
Edwards’ Matilda, meanwhile is precocious without being cutesy. In her everyday rebellions, we see a girl who is prickly, strong and indomitable, Matilda is a hero with a child’s vulnerability.
The one significant drawback to Mitchell’s production is it over-reliance on projections (designed by Driscoll Otto, who also did the lights). Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set is comprised primarily of moving pillars and screens that flicker with books or snow or school gates or – in one awkward bit – a massive, flickering head that sings a duet with Matilda.
That’s a smallish matter though. “Matilda” is terrific fun and terribly smart. If your childhood included even a single moment of adults behaving with seemingly random unfairness, you’ll find Matilda’s journey positively inspirational.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.