Matilda the Musical

By Philip Pearce

MATILDA, the brainy middle-schooler who gives her name to the musical now playing at the Golden Bough in Carmel doesn’t need a trip to Oz to know there’s no place like home.

    Home for Matilda Wormwood is a semi-detached in mid-1980s England and there’s no place like it for crass adult stupidity, mindless adult materialism and loud adult contempt for anyone who, like Matilda, wastes her time reading books.

    When she can, she reads them down at the library, where a sympathetic lady named Mrs Phelps, played with ditsy charm and warmth by Lydia Mansour, listens enraptured to live action flights of fairytale imagination told by Matilda and a couple of hand puppets.

    But much of the time Matilda and her books are forced into a corner of a Wormwood family room dominated by a huge TV which her wheeler-dealer car salesman dad insists is the source of all human wit and wisdom. With plenty of cockney zip and panache, Christopher Scott Sullinger explains in a song called “Telly” that the bigger your telly the smarter you’ll be. Nothing if not an obedient child, Matilda’s lout of a couch-potato brother Michael (a sly and slouching Nathan Stevens) spends his days glued to the goggle box. Mrs Wormwood, portrayed with high energy and bitchy by Aimée Puentes, spends hers bleaching her hair and practicing tango steps with a hired dance partner named Rudolpho, all snaky ballroom glides and suggestive leers in the hands of Sam Lebovsky.   

    The family decide to get their unwanted bookworm freak off the premises and into a special school for difficult children. Bri Slama, sympathetic and blessed with a pleasing soprano voice, is the perceptive teacher Miss Honey, who tips to the fact that her English class has acquired a junior sized genius. She and Matilda launch a running battle with Miss Trunchbull, a storm-trooper of a headmistress with an advanced degree in academic sadism. Played with scary and athletic menace by Rhett Wheeler, this formidable lady makes it vocally clear that her nose is always sensitive to “The Smell of Rebellion,” a student crime she punishes in a room called “The Chokey,” fitted out with Guantanamo Bay style torture equipment. 

    It’s not a rosy picture. But the way clever and clear-sighted Matilda rouses her fellow pupils to rebellion and banishes the terrifying Trunchbull, and waves off her idiotic family, and moves in with Miss Honey is the stuff of the rest of the plot.   

    The challenging role is double-cast, so I only caught Sunday’s remarkable and focused performance by Colette Gsell, who plays and sings in the title part with her usual high confidence and insight. Gsell gets just the right balance between youthful hope, cagy scheming and just plain mischief as she sings “You’ve sometimes got to be a little naughty.” From start to finish you’re rooting for her to win, but there’s no denying she does it because she’s a tough-minded smarty pants with a heart of gold and a will of steel. (Lucia Gaglioti plays Matilda at other performances.)

    Director Susanne Burns shows once again, as in Newsies, that she knows how to organize a cast of energetic young singer-actors in ways that look spontaneous but require high discipline and teamwork. Kenneth Kelleher and Patrick McEvoy create a design that shifts smoothly from scene to scene on the wheels of big interlocking units that reflect the dark doings of the plot without being too bleak about it. 

    Playwright Dennis Kelly’s script follows the mood and pattern of Roald Dahl’s novel. Tim Minchin’s words and music have plenty of punch and irony, but you needn’t look for warm, hummable ballads, nor should you. Dahl’s bestsellers are darkly comic but unflinching looks at the real pains and struggles of modern children.  He knows that young readers and audiences can take—even relish—a good helping of scary material. He’s like my maternal grandfather who became the most popular parent in the neighborhood by always crowding little clumps of his children’s small birthday party guests into a dark closet and singing them spooky songs. 

     Some of the tough and satiric moments in Matilda the Musical seemed a shade too complicated and puzzling for a pair of three-to-four-year-olds seated a row in front of me at Sunday’s performance. It’s not really a show for that very young age group.  But the satiric cartoonish tone and sharp-edged social commentary got a warm response from adult and young adult patrons. And everyone, young or old, felt a jolt of happily-ever-after glee when Miss Trunchbull got pushed off of the stage and permanently out of the story.