By Christopher Thomas
When I grow up I want to be in Matilda the Musical.
Or at least I’d love to live in a story that Matilda would tell. They’re thrilling stories where truth and goodness prevail. Life is a miracle to behold. Love reigns supreme. And yet, as audiences learn in the Broadway in Chicago’s touring production at the Oriental Theatre, these stories don’t end perfectly happy. Luckily, Matilda the Musical still invokes feelings of happiness, joy and complete satisfaction.
As the most enjoyable number in the entire show suggests, we should all be mindful of growing up. When the children in the show sing the heart-swelling “When I Grow Up,” they literally soar beyond the wall of stage-lights and over the tops of audiences as they swing back and forth. The grins on the faces of the actors are matched by every member of the audience, vicariously swinging through the air as if on any playground in any schoolyard in any place. The joy is palpable. The innocence is universal. It’s theatrical magic.
Ages young and old are reminded of the fear, excitement and wonder at growing up to become something bigger than what you already are. Essentially, this is one of the main messages of the show: the evil characters like Matilda’s awful, ignorant parents and the mongering Miss Trunchbull need to overcome their own selfishness just as much as the oppressed Miss Honey and the unhappy school children need to revolutionize their thinking.
Even in Roald Dahl’s dark take on childhood, this kind of change is possible, at least through the eyes of the central character, Matilda. Lily Brooks O’Briant portrays this little girl who stands for what is right, just and true with extreme confidence, especially for the 9-year-old performer that she is. Depending on the night, O’Briant shares the role with two others touring with the production.
The only jarring choice in her performance is her over-enunciation of all her words. Beyond the typical diction of a British dialect, all of the children in the show must have been coached into this exaggerated pronunciation. Although audiences might appreciate the extra effort to hear the dialogue, it is noticeable nonetheless.
Also noticeable are the talented performances of these other delicious Roald Dahl characters: David Abeles’ gender-bending Miss Trunchbull’s physique is both repulsive and hilarious. His/Her vocal characterization is delightfully overbearing and horrible and, in opposition, Jennifer Blood’s portrayal of Miss Honey is just as sweet. Chicago-native Ora Jones brings warmth and humor to the excitable, loving librarian who loves to listen to Matilda’s stories. And perhaps the best bit of casting is in the role of Matilda’s father, whose stupidity, misogyny and disgust are somehow funny through Quinn Mattfeld’s performance. His energetic physicality is enhanced by a comedic timing that has both adults and children laughing in sync.
It’s also worth noting the many catchy and literary turns of phrases that musician/lyricist Tim Minchin and Tony Award-winning playwright Dennis Kelly write in their adaptation of Dahl’s material, especially when Matilda preaches that “Even if you’re little, you can do a lot, you mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you.”
This production is a visual tour de force. The two strongest adaptations for this tour from the Broadway production are the imaginative choreography and jaw-dropping lighting design. These two elements help tell Matilda’s stories just as much as the music, if not more.
Tony Award winner Peter Darling’s choreography brings entire scenes to life with quick, thrilling movements and stage pictures. Conversely, Darling also knows when to keep it simple, as in the clever timed and rhythmic movements of the children in Miss Honey’s classroom. Additionally, Tony Award winning Lighting Designer Hugh Vanstone successfully overcomes the challenge of creating humor and warmth in a dark, ironic and satirical world true to Dahl’s novel. Furthermore, elements of the production like Trunchbull’s chokey and Matilda’s acrobatic adventure story are enthralling due to the blanket of lighting that is carefully woven into the show.
Tony Award winner Rob Howell’s set is simplified from the original Broadway production, which is welcomed in this very busy, ever-changing stage filled with moving set pieces and flats. The magic of the set design comes most alive in its simplest form: words spelled out letter-by-letter on acting blocks and other set pieces throughout. These suggestive pieces tie to Dahl’s literary and symbolic themes in an imaginative way that any aged audience member can grasp.
This is a show to bring the kids to. Before it begins, enjoy finding out all the words that the scrabble-like tiles spell across the curtain and proscenium. Then, as the show unfolds, smile together as each of those words takes on new meaning in Matilda’s magical story. After the show, you will either be humming a new tune or talking about the fun story, realizing that the magic is still with you.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Matilda, the Musical,” through April 10 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets ($32 to $97) are available by calling (312) 977-1700 or online here.