By: Angela Guardiani
I've never seen a theatrical event with so much anticipation around it as Matilda The Musical. Part of it, of course, is nostalgia. Like Tim Minchin, Matilda's composer and lyricist, I can remember reading Roald Dahl's savagely funny book and cheering for its sweet-hearted, big-brained heroine. (Unlike Tim Minchin, I'm not an idiosyncratic genius, but I can appreciate a good bit of weirdness when I find it.) But a bigger part of it, I think, is how much the modern musical has become something so expressive of the way we live and create and consume art. Musicals today aren't necessarily campy or cheesy or over-the-top. They can be full of spectacle, like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, or they can be quiet and deeply personal, like Fun Home. Matilda is smack dab in the middle. It is exuberant and colourful and dazzling and snarky, but it is gentle and honest too. And that makes is something worth seeing.
Matilda is about a precocious six-year-old who loves to read. Ignored and unloved by her obnoxiously loud family and bullied by her horrible headmistress, Matilda stays serenely self-composed because of the bond she's formed with her teacher, Miss Honey, who sees and fosters Matilda's intelligence.
When a dark secret from Miss Honey's abused past threatens her beloved teacher, Matilda finds a strange talent within herself that saves the day. It doesn't sound realistic at all, and it's not meant to be – the story is a fairy tale, all extremes.
Miss Honey is everything good and kind and thoughtful and sweet, and Matilda's parents – the repulsive Wormwoods – are everything loud and trashy and gleefully ignorant. “You chose books and I chose looks!” Mrs. Wormwood announces scornfully to Miss Honey before launching into a breathtakingly athletic musical number (“Loud”).
Mr. Wormwood gets an entire song and a good ten minutes of the intermission break to scoff at children in the audience for their bookwormy tendencies and to (literally) sing the praises of cable and reality TV (“Telly.”) And in my very favourite bit of stage business, the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull seizes a child by her long pigtails, spins her around, and literally flings her into the ceiling. I don't know how the director managed to launch a child actor up into the Ed Mirvish Theatre's proscenium arch and had her drop like a stone into the waiting arms of an adult – without any ill effects! - and I don't care. It's incredible.
The plot's not realistic, but that doesn't mean it's not real. Matilda has brains, but she has heart, too. Although she's plucky enough to engage in a bit of mischievous revenge, her family's bullying isolates and hurts her. The scene where she imagines a loving father coming home to rescue his beloved daughter made my chest ache with sympathy (“I'm Here.”)
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the supporting cast of child actors. Matilda is the star of the show (three girls share the role - Jamie MacLean was playing the role the night I saw it), but this is a show about childhood that's equally for kids and adults. You can't speak to children without including children, and this show gives them a voice. A lot of film/TV/theatrical productions have uncannily adult-like children parroting lines that I can never imagine a real child saying – basically well-trained ventriloquist's dummies. Not here! These children act their age. They are all really, really talented, but they are kids playing kids. It's lovely to see.
I wondered, as I watched the show, if the many young people in the audience were getting as much out of it as I was. Minchin's lyrics are dense with wordplay and metaphor, and there's an awful lot of “You maggot! Keep quiet!” low-level verbal abuse being hurled at kids. So at intermission, I asked a few of them.
“The dad is funny!” one of them said, grinning ear to ear.
“I liked the part where they hid the boy under the coats!” said another. (She's right. It's not as brilliant as the pigtail-enabled tossing, but it's pretty awesome.)
“I want to sing and dance too!” said a third, bouncing up and down with enthusiasm.
The kids are all right, I thought, heading back into the theatre for Act Two. Matilda's got something for everyone.
Photos by Joan Marcus.
Angela Guardiani is a lady of strong opinions who lives and teaches ESL in Toronto. She is a food lover, grammar nerd, book junkie, and will try anything once. Follow her enthusiastic but sporadic tweets at @minorgoddess.