Saturday, April 20, 2013

Matilda: A Sense of Wonder

Soaring high on a swing on your belly, lying on your back in the playground watching the clouds, imagining stories with paper cut-outs and shadows.  The visual feast that is the RSC's production of Matilda goes above and beyond to make you feel that sense of childhood wonder.  For a brief shining moment in Matilda, as the ensemble sings When I Grow Up, that sense of possibility is everything.  Children are being children and they are experiencing the pure joy that comes from play, freedom, and release.  It is a beautiful, poignant, and heart-warming moment.  And for about the length of that song I was enthralled with Matilda.  But when they moved on, my apathy returned. 

Matilda is an unusual new musical but for someone who loves things dark and should have warmed to the story of the precocious little girl who's smarter than all the adults around her, I found the heart of the musical was missing for me.  How was I immune to Matilda's charms?  As a precocious, bookworm child myself (favoring as a youngster The Twits and The BFG to the more famous Dahl books), Matilda should be my emotional soul-mate, but despite a gorgeous production, some terrific adult performances, and a few lovely songs, I found myself struggling with the main character's passivity and introversion and longing for an emotional connection to this story.

Matilda (played in rotation by four performers, and the night I saw it Sophia Gennusa) is a five year old who loves books and has dreadful, self-centered parents who are cruel and neglectful. Her parents berate her for her intellect and interest in books.  Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert) is a slick car salesman who is always looking for a get rich quick scheme.  Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita) is obsessed with her looks and her salsa dancing partner Rudolpho.   To cope with these horribles, Matilda entertains herself with naughty revenge schemes against them, with fanciful stories she tells her local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge) and telling white lies about how much her parents love her. Matilda's mental gifts are recognized and appreciated by her new school teacher Miss Honey (Lauren Ward). But Miss Honey can only do so much for Matilda when she lives in fear of the school's bullying principal, Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel) who believes all children are maggots and the most important part of education is phys ed.

The adult performers are delicious in their garish and grotesque roles. Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita played up their despicable characters to the hilt.  Ebert, dressed in a green checker suit (the fantastic costumes are by Rob Howell), seems to have legs that stretch up into oblivion.  His preening vanity and copious stupidity give the show some of its more comic moments.  There is no wonder all the chatter about this show seemed to be about Bertie Carvel's gender-bending turn as Miss Trunchbull. Carvel sculpts a deliciously evil character through every gesture and
intonation in his voice (there are moments he sounds a bit like a South Park character). He achieves the incredible by making Miss Trunchbull evil, funny, a little scary but oddly a little vulnerable.  She is the monster of a children's nightmare but she is also human.  Lauren Ward as Miss Honey sings with perfect clarity and is more timid child than Matilda.  But for all these fine adult performances, the show is highly dependent on the children of the ensemble (Note: I could not understand a single word of the their group numbers.  I imagine the lyrics by Tim Minchin were witty and amusing but god only knows) and the lead child playing Matilda.

Matilda's passivity was a struggle and I must assume it was a choice since it seemed consistent between story (book by Dennis Kelly), direction and performance.  She is established as someone who understands intellectually the horrible circumstances of her life but her emotional state is a complete mystery.  Despite a few moments of her naughtiness and acting out, for the most part she takes her substantial emotional lumps, blankly and completely.  When her father tears up her precious library book, she sedately picks up the pieces as if nothing has happened.  She fantasizes about a life where parents love their children--which makes me think she wants to feel love but sometimes I was not sure if she felt anything at all. 

I didn't feel Matilda's connection to her storytelling.  Her detachment left me wondering what her emotional state truly was.  The music gave little clue.  Even her most poignant ballad, Quiet, is more intellectual than emotional.  She is a child locked up in her mind.  Telekinesis releases some of that pent up emotion but even so I did not feel her anger.  When Matilda suddenly hugs Miss Honey, it comes out of nowhere.   And there is great drama in that moment because it is the first genuine emotion we've seen but that's a long time to go without an emotional breadcrumb trail.

We are suspended in a child's world filled with evil, cruelty, injustice, as well as gentleness, understanding, love, and affection.  But our guide through this world is so detached. Sophia Gennusa hits all her marks and performed as she was supposed to (lovely voice, cute as a button, adorable choreography and movement) but there was nothing behind the performance.  It's a lot to put on the shoulders of a nine-year-old actor and I do not think she should have had to bear this burden alone.  Matilda, as a character, seemed to float along in a daze and it left me adrift.  In the Matilda void, I found myself more emotionally drawn into Miss Honey's story.  Her songs, performance, and story were emotionally transparent and articulated--and Ward was a delight. 

Matthew Warchus, whose last work on Broadway was Ghost: The Musical, keeps this material smart and never lets it drift into the maudlin or sentimental.  Beyond the magical When I Grow Up number, Warchus unites the dynamic visual landscape (Rob Howell created the sets as well as the costumes) with the dark Roald Dahl based story through his cunning direction.  I thought the number about physical education with the kids physically climbing on alphabetically placed blocks in the prison-like gate to the school summed up well the type of witty direction which punctuates the production or when he places Miss Trunchbull in her office in front of a panel of antique security monitors like she's the Stasi.  I reveled in the shadow puppet rendering of Matilda's storytelling (which I preferred to the more on the nose use of live actors to act out the scenes).

When I was a child, my second grade teacher read to us aloud from the Roald Dahl books as we would draw scenes from them.  We were left to imagine the world that Dahl created and render it through our own experiences. This production feels faithful to that world but missing a crucial spark. 

Much like some Sondheim musicals where each piece can be lovely but all together it does not add up (say, Into the Woods), the pieces of the Matilda puzzle just did not seem to click even if various distinct pieces were solid.  Matilda is worth the time to see for adults and children alike.  It is a different creature from the usual Broadway tourist musical (amen) but as much as I tried to not let the hype get to me, it was not as funny, dark, or revolutionary as I had expected.  I'm mostly just sad that I did not love it.

1 comment:

  1. Mildly (may I call you that?), you singled out the same moment ("When I Grow Up") that almost won me over, too, and pinpointed a lot of the issues I had with the show, too (though I must say I found Miss Honey bland in conception and in performance, but what a thankless role).