By MIKE CHAIKEN
Walking into The Bushnell for “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” I really didn’t know what I was getting into.
Although I read Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator,” and “James and the Giant Peach” when I was in elementary school, “Matilda” was one of his children’s books I missed. And I never saw anything more than blips and bleeps of the movie with Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.
As for the stage show itself, I had heard the buzz. And I know my theater-minded friends were excited about the arrival of the national tour in Connecticut. I had a few poking me for the privilege to come along when I reviewed it.
But, still, I didn’t know what to expect.
However, to put it bluntly, I loved it.
First of all, let me pause for a moment and point out something.
Yes, “Matilda” is considered a children’s novel. But for parents expecting “Cinderella,” well, you’ll be dismayed. The story of “Matilda” is very dark. It probably is a more realistic view of childhood with bullying, disappointment, and diminished expectations taking prominence. But it is still full of malevolent shadows.
And the adults in the show are essentially idiots. If you’re trying to teach your children to blindly give respect to adults, “Matilda” will undermine your well-meaning efforts.
Some parents at the April 20 performance even left the theater with their tweens in tow. They muttered how the show is inappropriate for children.
Mind you, there’s no sex and violence in the show. There’s only a cynical view of the world from the eyes of an honest child (and a jaded adult author).
With that underway, let’s talk about the show itself.
Frankly, there’s not a dimension of “Matilda” that falls short.
The performers from Lily Brooks O’Briant, who played the title character on April 20, to the ensemble were all brilliant.
Special attention has to be given to O’Briant. (There are two other girls who play the role on alternating nights, Savannah Grace Elmer and Sarah McKinley Austin, to give them there due.) The youngster snagged your attention every moment that she was on stage. She clearly understood her character, and gave her lines (and there were lots and lots of lines) emotional heft. When she takes her solo on the song “Quiet,” the feelings bubbling under her character’s surface are palpable. And she also demonstrates incredible comedic timing during her exchanges with her doltish parents—played by Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld.
For someone so young, O’Briant was a delight.
Speaking of her parents, Silva and Quinn offered up some of the most hilarious moments of the evening. The actors absorbed the stupidity of their characters and delivered the lines provided by the show’s book author, Dennis Kelly, straight. They allowed the humor of the words to bring the laughs rather than coax out the guffaws.
Michael Graceffa, as Miss Trunchbull, was also one of the highlights of the evening as the evil head mistress. Graceffa, in a drag role, clearly had great fun in playing the villain… allowing his performance to go over the top. He had the perfect balance of malicious administrator and buffoon. He was a fine foil for the young O’Briant.
Jennifer Blood, who played Miss Honey, had one of the toughest jobs of the evening. While all of this madness and zaniness happened around her, her character required Blood to be the voice of reason in spite of her own neuroses. But, her calm demeanor was just what the show needed to keep it from flying off the hinges. And her solos, “Pathetic,” and “Miss Honey” provided a strong emotional core to the night’s performances.
Although adults often get the attention on stage, because they are adults, I also have to salute the children in the cast. Like O’Briant, they showed great skill as performers. And when the spotlight was turned toward them they did not disappoint. They were clearly pros and not mere props.
A musical, of course, is not just actors on stage.
I loved the unique choreography created by Peter Darling, which was not only entertaining but helped define the characters and the story.
The set and costume design by Rob Howell also did a fantastic job of bringing Roald Dahl’s vision of Matilda’s world to life.
And Matthew Warchus’s direction was brilliant. The frantic, frenetic pacing was just what the story needed… and he was smart enough to slow things down when the story needed it.
Frankly, there was not a bum note in the entire evening when “Matilda the Musical” took to the stage at The Bushnell. It’s really worth seeing… even if you have no idea of what you’re getting into.
I give “Roald Dahl’s
Matilda the Musical” at The Bushnell in Hartford an enthusiastic four out of four stars. Check it out.
“Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford through Sunday. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
For tickets, go to Bushnell.org.