“My Mummy says I’m a miracle,” chorus the whining, “gifted” children at the beginning of “Matilda.” As a theatergoer, I laughed. As a parent, I also laughed–but at myself. (Few parents believe they haven’t somehow produced the single most talented human to ever grace public streets.) In stark contrast, the heartbreaking lyrics for the titular heroine herself begins with, “My Mummy says I’m a lousy little worm … ” and the oft-overlooked gal has you on her side from the get-go.
If you go
Runs through April 10, 2016 at the Oriental Theatre
Fans of Roald Dahl know the tale of brilliant, bibliophile Matilda and her sometimes abusive, sometimes neglectful parents. The incredibly vivid storyteller retreats into her dream world to rise above the unfairness of her daily life, but when she witnesses schoolmates fall prey to injustices at her new school, well, a girl can only take so much before she has to take a stand. And that’s when it gets really good–and involves more than a little magic.
The first national tour (of the production which won over 50 international awards, including four Tony Awards) is a gorgeous dream of a show which somehow manages to encapsulate the perfect longings of (and for) youth, the whimsy and humor of Dahl, the dreaminess of idealized romance and fantastic choreography (from Tony Award-winner Peter Darling) that’ll pop your eyeballs clear out of your head.
Directed by Tony Award-winner Matthew Warchus, “Matilda” lives up to every inch of its hype with an absolutely perfect cast and songs you’ll be singing long after the curtain closes. The night we attended, Lily Brooks O’Briant–one of the three touring “Matildas”–took the stage with wit, terrific delivery and a presence not usually seen in 9-year-olds. Other standouts (in a cast chock full of them) include the incredibly evil Miss Trunchbull (David Abeles), Chicago’s own Ora Jones as benevolent librarian Mrs. Phelps and the hysterically evil parenting duo of Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva).
Shortly after opening night I spoke with Justin Packard, who plays The Escape Artist, a mysterious yet pivotal character in Matilda’s narrative whose “story within a story” arc ties the whole play together–and made me cry more than once.
“The story of the escape artist and the acrobat is not in the movie, it’s not in the original book at all,” Packard told me. “But it does lend a little extra emotional support and kind of makes it more sentimental.”
When asked about the world which Matilda and her community inhabit, he explained the scale of reality within the production and the “1 to 5” comic book scale of character behavior.
“There are certain characters, 1 being the most realistic, the most everyday people you would see walking down the street and whom you’d have interactions with every day. 5 is the other extreme, of people who are larger than life in every way. They speak extravagantly, they dress ornately and if you saw these people walk down the street you’d just stop walking and watch what they were doing. They’re all rooted in reality, and I think there’s a handful of characters that fit at the realism end of that spectrum, that are really interesting in their own way. Miss Honey is one of them, The Escape Artist and the Acrobat are on that scale, Mrs. Phelps–the librarian–to a degree is there, and that contrasts well to the Wormwoods and the Trunchbull and some of the schoolchildren who are at the other end.”
And as the sole parent in the cast, Packard’s experience as a new dad (to 8-month-old daughter Audrey, who travels on the tour alongside his wife Sara) brings a different perspective on the mix of precocious child actors and seasoned adults. But he doesn’t feel you need to be a parent to appreciate the caliber of these kids.
“They’re not only good at their jobs–yes, they’re 10-year-olds and occasionally they’ll get into 10-year-old trouble–but they know the difference between play time and show time, and they’re all remarkable at it. And that’s a measure of the parenting that they’ve received. All of them have at least one guardian who travels with them, and they’re doing a magnificent job of being with them on tour, balancing their child’s profession– which sounds so strange to say–and their child’s adolescence. That’s pretty hard. I applaud them for that.”
Running at around 2 hours and 40 minutes (with one intermission) and dealing with occasionally dark subjects and stagecraft, this production is geared for your slightly older kids (or, in my case, a book-adoring 6-year-old who poked me every time a character uttered the word “stupid”). But if they can tough out the darkly beautiful first act, the euphoria of the second half will, quite literally, make them stand up and cheer; for the weak overcoming the strong, for the celebration of brilliant, educated girls and for characters who know how to change their own story.