A review of the touring production of “Matilda,” now playing at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.
There once was a remarkable little girl named Matilda who loved stories. At 5 she was reading Dostoevsky in Russian and racing through much of English literature. She was also making up her own thrilling tales, about a circus escape artist and his wife.
Matilda’s doltish parents mocked her. Her school headmistress berated her.
But in the end, she found someone to love her — actually, millions who’ve read the still popular “Matilda,” Roald Dahl’s deliciously humorous, subversive 1980s children’s novel. And countless others who’ve seen the hit London and Broadway musical, “Matilda,” on tour now at the 5th Avenue Theatre through Sept. 6.
By Dennis Kelly, score by Tim Minchin. Through Sept. 6, the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $35 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
How’s that for a happy ending, even for a story that doesn’t promise one?
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“Matilda” the musical is a spree of theatrical invention and deploys an inexhaustible posse of gifted, adorable kid actors (think “Annie,” on steroids) to keep audiences quite happy indeed. (Small caveat: Serious technical problems interrupted the first preview of the 5th Avenue run, and there are some lingering acoustic issues.)
This is a family show, unless you believe kids should be shielded from wit, irony, the joys of reading and the comedic villainy of child-haters and Philistines. (There’s no sex, violence or profanity, but sprinklings of name-calling and verbal bullying.)
The minimob of energized schoolmates of Matilda (capably played opening night by Gabrielle Gutierrez, who alternates in the lead role with two other child actors) dominate the Royal Shakespeare Company’s captivating, never-a-dull-moment staging, directed by Matthew Warchus and choreographed by Peter Darling.
Trying to survive the fear and loathing of their Dickensian educational institution, but still seize some fun, the pint-size inmates of Crunchem Hall School sing out Tim Minchin’s clever score, stomp and romp round the classroom, soar on swings and pull pranks to fend off dreaded school honcho Miss Trunchbull, a former athlete and full-time gorgon. (She’s played to the nines in hideous drag by Bryce Ryness).
Miss Trunchbull’s motto: “Children are maggots.” Her educational philosophy? “To teach the child we must break the child.”
Home isn’t much more inviting for Matilda. Her idiot parents, the Wormwoods, have no use for a bookworm daughter.
“The sooner you’re locked up in school, the better,” shrieks her tacky, ballroom- dancing mother (Cassie Silva). And her crooked car- salesman father (Quinn Mattfeld) extols the virtues of mindless TV-watching in the peppy music hall-style number, “Telly.”
In the musical, Matilda’s only adult allies (and the only adult characters who aren’t wildly cartoonish) are a story-loving librarian (Ora Jones), and Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), a kind teacher still getting over her crappy childhood. (Dahl’s novel, deftly adapted for the stage by Dennis Kelly, drew from his own experiences attending an abusive school.)
The one deficit here: Too often the full blast sound obliterates Minchin’s deft, hyper-verbal lyrics when sung by young voices aiming for British accents. Whether the ongoing audio problems at the 5th Avenue, the tour’s own sound system, or both are at fault, it’s unfortunate.
However, solo songs are more cogent, including “My House” from the dulcet-voiced Blood, and Matilda’s zippy anthem, “Naughty.”
And the staging is a trip, including the scenic creations of Rob Howell, who also designed costumes faithful to the book’s illustrations.
The set is an evolving montage of scrambled letters, with shifting backdrops illustrated with towering stacks of books.
Even when he wrote “Matilda,” Dahl must have sensed how endangered the act of reading, for pleasure and knowledge and imagination, would become, and how much it would need champions like Matilda.