Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Children of Eden
It could certainly be said that Matilda the Musical, currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, is unconventional in many ways, and it's likely that all those involved will take that as a great compliment. After all, the novel that the show is based on isn't a traditional children's book either. The musical contains some suitable songs, a mix of sad, happy and funny moments, and unique design and creative elements. In addition, this tour boasts a top notch cast.
Based on Ronald Dahl's 1988 novel, Matilda tells the story of a five-year-old girl who is neglected and berated by her shallow, unethical and self-absorbed parents. When she starts school, things don't get any better, with the school headmistress (a former Olympian hammer thrower) having a strong dislike for children. Thankfully, Matilda is brilliantreading and performing complex math already. With the help of her supportive teacher Miss Honey, Matilda's great mind soon shows itself in even more interesting ways, and she helps herself and Miss Honey to banish their own personal demons.
The musical, which opened in New York four years ago and closed this past January, is somewhat of a departure from both the original novel and the well-known film adaptation. The musical's book by Dennis Kelly is aptly eccentric, interesting, and clearly told. The camp antics of Matilda's parents and headmistress Miss Trunchbull are balanced out by the kindness of Miss Honey and Matilda's stamina to endure it all. Not to say that Matilda takes it all standing still. She has a strong sense of justice, and takes it out (quite comically) on those that deserve it through a series of pranks. However, the story is told with quite an intense and dark overtone which may be too much for some smaller children (many of whom are likely to attend the show). Additionally, the inclusion of a series of scenes set in a library where Matilda makes up a story stalls the action each time, even if it is told with style and provides some layers to the backstory of other characters.
The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (this Broadway season's Groundhog Day) are a good fit for the story and overall presentation of the piece, even if there are only a few tunes that you'll go home humming. "Naughty," "When I Grow Up" (the hopeful "want song" for the children), and the rock-tinged "Revolting Children" are score highlights, and both "Loud" and "Telly" are comedic songs of note. The opening number, "Miracle," sets the musical tone of the piece well and says something about our society's focus on spoiling our kids, but it's odd to have a lengthy opener which is not centered on the primary characters. Also, some of the very witty lyrics don't fit well in the music at times, adding to the already difficult task of understanding all of them underneath the British accents (which have thankfully been toned down a bit from Broadway).
For press night in Cincinnati, Jaime Maclean played Matilda (she shares the role in rotation with Gabby Gutierrez and Jenna Weir). Miss Maclean is eleven years old, but her small stature allows her to easily pass for the five-year-old protagonist. She displays impeccable timing, and has a stage presence that many seasoned veterans would be jealous of, plus clear and pleasant singing. As Miss Honey, CCM grad Jennifer Bowles captures the teacher's nurturing kindheartedness and sings the score's primary plaintive numbers with the necessary tenderness and fine vocal delivery.
Dan Chameroy hilariously portrays Miss Trunchbull, displaying the cruelty of the character while also getting all of the necessary laughs. Mr. Chameroy sings confidently and is a strong physical presence as well. Matt Harrington (Mr. Wormwood) and Darcy Stewart (Mrs. Wormwood) are up to the required campy fun as Matilda's parents and demonstrate their significant talents throughout. Keisha T. Fraser is a winning Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. Special kudos to the high-energy child ensemble who, along with their adult counterparts, seem to almost always be in motion and give great support throughout.
Director Matthew Warchus creates many inspired moments of theater through his blocking, employing some unique stagecraft within his work. The choreography by Peter Darling is angular, quick and modern, and conveys the angst of many of the characters skillfully. Bill Congdon leads a splendid-sounding orchestra.
The scenic design by Rob Howell features multiple arches of Scrabble-type tiles scattered about, some with letters spelling out words from the novel. Other stylish and interesting set pieces make this a visually pleasing design. Howell also supplies the costumes, which include appropriately absurd outfits for the wrongdoers in the show, and capturing the British school uniform look familiar to so many. Hugh Vanstone's excellent lighting features numerous effects and a wonderful use of shadows.
Matilda is a very good, but not great show, in part due to its inefficient storytelling. Parents should avoid bringing very young children, as the show is intense and quite sad at times, and does run over two and a half hours. But, it does feature a great cast and solid elements throughout, and is a welcome addition to our national tour options.
Matilda the Musical continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through April 16, 2017. Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-294-1816. For more information on the tour, visit www.matildathemusical.com.