When you think about it, it's amazing any of us survive our early years. We're born as tiny and utterly defenseless creatures, entirely subject to the whims of the strange adults who claim they're our parents. And we stay that way for many years, until we can wrench ourselves free of their domination. For some, that's not a particularly charming way to start an existence.
And that is the feeling that is brought to life in Matilda, the Musical, now at Playhouse Square. Based on the delightfully dark Roald Dahl book, this stunning production is a real workout for the cast members, many of whom are very young and very talented. While the lyrics by Tim Minchin are clever, his sing-song-y score never really captures the fire and brimstone of Dahl's original work and this book adaptation by Dennis Kelly.
But that doesn't mean the musical doesn't work; it just works on you differently than you might expect. To begin with, Matilda Wormwood is a precocious — nay, a genius-level — kindergartener. She lives in a town bordering London, reads Dostoyevsky in the original Russian, and is always delving into books of one sort or another. This drives her parents to distraction, since they are cultural bottom-feeders, both addicted to the telly when they're not yelling at Matilda for sticking her nose in books. Her father won't even concede that Matilda is a girl, since he wanted a boy and is sticking with that story.
Matilda finds a salvation of sorts in Miss Honey, her teacher who quickly recognizes the smarts the little girl possesses. There is also a librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones), who is enthralled by Matilda's ability to spin stories the tyke has read about, such as the one she relates about the acrobat and the escape artist. But those empathetic grownups are often blocked by a cruel headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who stomps anything gentle and vulnerable in her path, particularly the small kiddies in her charge. Played by a male actor, the towering and fearsome Miss T, who refers to her students as maggots, is a sphincter-puckering apparition from every child's worst Skittles overload-induced nightmare.
In short, this is a view of early childhood from the child's point of view: skewed, terrifying and entirely relatable for most of us. The set design by Rob Howell enhances that perspective with towering, rolling units representing bookshelves and a glorious galaxy of letters just waiting to be arranged into patterns that could provide an escape route for Matilda and her classmates.
While the adult performers in this production serve the story exceptionally well, they don't create any particular magic by themselves. As Mr. Wormwood, Quinn Mattfeld is properly tormented by Matilda, especially when she plays pranks on him such as sneaking bleach into his hair gel and pouring glue in his hat. But Mattfeld doesn't have as much fun as he could with these moments. Cassie Silva does a bit better as his wife, who spends her free time practicing ballroom dancing with her sexy dancing partner Rudolpho (an Elvis-y Michael Graceffa).
In the featured role of Miss Trunchbull, David Abeles does the predictable snarls and muscle-flexing quite well, but he never creates his own twist on the character that would make it stand out. Playing Miss Honey and Mrs. Phelps, Jennifer Blood and Ora Jones are sweet and lovely, as required.
As for the kids in the ensemble, they perform like the professional troupers they are, dancing Peter Darling's vigorous choreography with precision and verve. They are called upon to do a lot of heavy lifting in this long and complex production, and they never flag for a second.
Of course, in a show like this it all comes down to the actor in the title role. But unlike in Annie, where the lead role is equipped with a few enduring and memorable songs, the lead role here has to be created without such assistance. Indeed, Matilda has only two featured songs, "Naughty" and "Quiet," and neither are likely to send you out of the theater humming.
So it falls to the trio of young girls who share the role of Matilda, to make this character come alive. On this night, the title role was played by Sarah McKinley Austin, and she had the poker face aura of the small savant down pat. That made her comic scenes play with added punch. And if her voice didn't quite carry the songs she sung, well, she's dealing with some demanding musical material that could challenge a lot of adult performers.
When you were growing up, if you ever felt like an alien creature plopped into a foreign land, Matilda the Musical will take you back to that time with plenty of wit and some splashy stage effects. And that's a darn good way to revisit childhood.
Matilda the Musical
Through May 22 at Playhouse Square
1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org