It would be fair to assume that almost everybody who claims to be a “90’s kid” in America could not have missed certain major historical instances—supermarket shelves being stocked with Captain Planet breakfast cereal (1994), the scandalous moral decline of Britney Spears (1998 to present), and the release of beloved films like “The Lion King” and “Matilda.” What is striking about these films is that they have continued to thrive and have earned a special place in the hearts of the audience. Their adaptation to the stage then comes as no surprise.
What is surprising is the indolent lack of creative initiative that musical directors display in their reliance on a brand name. It is as if they have assumed that the name “Matilda” is enough in itself to attract audience. While this formula has worked well for the “Die Hard” franchise, it does not seem to favor playwright Dennis Kelly’s rendition of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda.”
On Nov. 18, I was pleased to have been invited to a press night of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical,” commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Bringing along an equally excited friend, we went with the hope of having a stimulating discussion about the adaptation of a pop culture phenomenon to stage. Scratch that, we went with the hope of reliving our childhood.
Alas, our pleasure ended some eight minutes into the musical. Before I delve into the painful side of the story, I must add what alleviated some of that trauma—the Kimmel Center served as a great venue for the play. The set was absolutely fantastic—the stage was adorned with giant alphabet blocks which set the theme for the play (since the majority of it took place in the elementary school named “Crunchem Hall” as in the movie). The costumes were spot-on. The choreography and the dance numbers were performed to a T. The character of Miss Trunchbull might have been the pinnacle of the director Matthew Warchus’ creative endeavors. Miss Trunchbull was played to perfection by a man (Bryce Ryness) instead of a woman (as a reminder, the robust Pam Ferris played Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, the movie). Now, we all know the story—Matilda Wormwood is a brilliant child who is undermined and bullied by her father and her dance-obsessed mother. She finds her refuge in books, and in her interaction with her teacher, Miss Honey. What follows is Matilda’s (and Miss Honey’s) journey to stand up for what they believe to be right.
It appears that the play copied the 98-minute-long storyline of the movie, diluted it with a weak script and added distasteful music to the horror of its most devoted fan (yes, I love that movie). There are three girls who alternate in performing the title role, so it could have been that Nov.18, the squeaky and overly-childish antics of Mabel Tyler were not typical of the other two Matildas. Nevertheless, the tepid music and the weak script existed as the play’s nemeses. The first musical number, “Miracle,” (which includes lyrical gems such as, “My mommy says I’m a miracle”) evoked certain strong emotions in my head. You know what was a miracle? That I did not leave ten minutes into the play.
In the movie, Miss Honey is presented as a woman who is unsure of herself but still resolute in her affairs. On stage, Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) was written off as a self-pitying character with musical numbers like “Pathetic” which, well, display how pathetically she was written. Every scene in the movie was performed with exactitude on stage (points for being a good copycat), even the scene when Matilda puts super-super-glue inside her father’s hat and Mr. Wormwood ends up with a hat stuck to his hair. Mr. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld) provided some comedic relief, but his performance fell short of innovation.
About 20 minutes into the show, the play came to a halt due to a technical difficulty. Barring this one surprise, the play was predictable enough to put me to sleep. There was a joke cracked by Matilda’s parents about “population control” which failed to garner the audience’s sympathies (or laughs, if anybody’s into contraception or abortion jokes). I would suggest that the next time the play takes place, Matilda use some of that super-super-glue to glue the audience to their seats. Otherwise, chances are that they might go home with squeaky voices running in their heads all night with one clear message—use protection.