No one saw it coming. A debuting musical theater team adapting a Roald Dahl children’s story about an unhappy girl whose life is saved by the magic of books? True, helmer Matthew Warchus was aboard, but his last tuner was “Lord of the Rings.” Yet “Matilda” turns out to be an explosion of joy, the most exhilarating and flat-out best musical since “Billy Elliot.”
The show is produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and anyone finding that a shade mind-boggling should recall that, 25 years ago, the same company created “Les Miserables.” But it also did the notorious megaflop “Carrie” and, four years ago, a mercifully forgotten tuner version of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The latter never answered the core question: Why turn it into a tuner? “Matilda” answers that question triumphantly.
Plotwise, this is still the tale of an overlooked, unhappy girl with magical powers whose ghastly, self-serving parents are horrified that their daughter immerses herself in books. Initially terrorized by her vicious headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel), Matilda (heartbreakingly poised, waif-like Kerry Ingram at the performance reviewed) uses her powers and happiness wins out.
Dahl’s popularity rests not on the polish of his prose but on aggressively daredevil high spirits and the momentum of his plotting. Playwright Dennis Kelly’s terrific book underlines all that but considerably strengthens the story.
Crucially, he weaves in a new layer. Throughout the show, Matilda recounts a story she has invented to librarian Mrs. Phelps (Melanie La Barrie). Theatrical in its own right, her story also shows Matilda’s character from an additional angle, hinting at suppressed feelings about her hideous family. It also provides a huge emotional payoff. In a leap perfectly complementing her magical powers, her imaginary story is unexpectedly revealed to be the backstory of one of the key characters.
It was expected that musician-comedian Tim Minchin would provide cheeky, sparky songs. And he proves deliciously that, as Matilda sings, “you just have to be a little bit naughty” on occasion. But what really makes his numbers soar is the way they delineate character and drive narrative.
Take the opening number, “Miracle.” Minchin’s number doesn’t just state a position, it builds through changing perspectives and tonal shifts. It also launches the notion of miracles, an idea thematically revisited in different guises throughout without ever merely stooping to lazy reprises.
Choreographer Peter Darling seizes Minchin’s punchy rhythms to galvanizing effect. He boldly uses Rob Howell’s sets and props to bolster individual characters and the emotions of whole groups. He harnesses dance energy to build numbers toward dramatic surprise. The gym sequence climaxing with Miss Trunchbull hurling herself into flight is triumphantly funny.
That Dahl-like spirit of comic exaggeration is the initial hallmark of Warchus’ production, instantly established via Rob Howell’s terrific over-the-top costumes for Matilda’s parents, the Wormwoods. Perpetually sneering Josie Walker is a ballroom-dancing obsessive in an avalanche of pinned-up bleached curls, while Paul Kaye as her furious loser husband looks like he has been ironed into his exuberantly horrid plaid suit.
As erstwhile Olympic hammerthrower-turned-psychotic headmistress Agatha Trunchbull, Carvel is jawdroppingly original. Expunging the expected bullish roar, he leaps to the opposite extreme. Hair ruthlessly yanked back to increase his glare, he gleams with almost orgasmic sotto-voce malice aforethought and hurls imperious threats of imprisonment in tones of shiveringly polite disdain. It’s like watching a hippo on ballet pointes lobbing hand grenades.
What lifts the show is its overwhelming emotional kick. In a journey from sadness to joy, it would have been easy to overstate the case, but Warchus et al. achieve power through restraint. The exuberant second act opener, “When I Grow Up,” sees children and adults flying high on swings, yet it’s impossible to miss the poignancy of inchoate feelings of loss and hope flooding beneath the surface.
“Matilda” comes with a ready-made audience via generations who have feasted upon the original story. But this transcends its source. As with “Billy Elliot,” having the narrative led by the title character and numerous other children necessitates an expensive three casts. But “Matilda” is so riotously enjoyable that if the figures can be made to work, its future could be limitless.