This is not a review. This is a recommendation. Go see Matilda The Musical at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre. Trust me on this one.
We nicknamed our daughter Broadway Baby because of her love for musicals and performances that have graced the stages of New York City’s famed theatre row. At 16 years-old she has a memory for the biography of actors and can rhyme off the songs to musicals I’ve never seen. So when an opportunity came to take her to see the Toronto production of Matilda, The Musical, I didn’t dare pass it up. But I’ll be honest, part of me wanted too.
I knew nothing of the plot except that it was based on a book by Roald Dahl, about a mischievous little girl who often finds herself in trouble. I knew there was a movie too, geared towards children. I knew that there would be lots of singing, dancing and hijinks. Forgive me but, I’ve been the parent who saw all the kid movies over and over, and the kid-friendly musical acts, and was certain my rock’n roll days were behind me when I sunk so low as to see The Wiggles in concert. Now that those precious days were behind me, the last thing I wanted to do was go see a musical set for kids. Been there. Done that. Got the DVD.
Oh boy was I wrong. Matilda isn’t just for a story for children. It is a story for everyone who has survived childhood, (that means you). The tale of the genius little girl with special powers and an even more special ability to do the right thing in the face of incredible odds is about the universal truth that a belief in yourself is the one strength that can get you through anything. Absolutely anything.
The story begins with a hilarious scene at a birthday party for one spoiled child, surrounded by an adorable guest list of equally indulged children, whose parents have filled their tiny egos with such glorified hope and encouragement, that their futures were assured nothing but success, so long as they never realize that every other child is special too. If this wasn’t a spot-on metaphor for my generation’s “helicopter parenting” ideology, then I’m not sure what is. The point was not lost on the audience.
The first act introduces us to the young performers who bring the story to life with their exuberant energy and amazing choreography. In a song, audiences knew they would be thoroughly entertained by the talented cast of children alone.
But then, with a few quick additions to the stage set, we are introduced to the tiny girl with her nose often in a book, whose intelligent wit is always misconstrued as defiance. Though she is never intentionally argumentative, her smarts always lands her in trouble. Matilda Wormwood is a petite tour de force, yet audiences don’t know the half of it, because this authentically gifted child doesn’t know her gifts yet either. Sadly, we find her genetically misplaced in the home of trashy, vulgar parents, whose disregard for their daughter is evident every time her father calls her “boy,” and she calmly replies, “but I am a girl.” Her father’s menacing bully techniques are matched by her mother’s own ignorance for all things except the ballroom dance floor. It’s comedic fodder for a darker theme, perfectly performed.
At this performance, Matilda was played by 10 year-old Jaime MacLean. So enchanting was this young actress that I found myself immediately under her spell, and inspired by her words: “You mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you … if it’s not right, you have to put it right.”
Enthralled by Matilda’s imaginative story-telling, and her ability to abruptly cut a story short because the next chapter had yet to come to her busy mind, it was powerful to watch this character weave a world of romance, magic, mystery and tragedy throughout the play, masking the loneliness of her own reality. But at no time does she feel sorry for herself. Even in her anger, Matilda shows us that self-pity is not a solution; resiliency is.
One of my favourite scenes was the ominous first day of school for Matilda and her primary classmates. Hats off to the design and stage crew who put together a spectacular set at the front gates of Crunchem Hall Elementary. As the letters of the School Song lit up on moving blocks used as steps, senior students climbed the iron gates quickly while other students behind the gates moved the letters in a disarrayed sequence. Timing was everything and the set was constantly moving with the actors keeping perfect choreographed movements to keep the fluid performance seamless. It was magical to watch.
One cannot help but appreciate the work behind the scenes and offer kudos to the stage managers and crew for creating a set design that moves easily from scene to scene without imposing on the storyline, but always adding to the fluidity of the story. Coordinating the actors was surely strategy enough, but audiences would never know it.
I still marvel at how the darker themes of this story were presented with such humour and lightness. This is a clever production brought to live by an engaging cast. No matter how sleazy a scoundrel Mr. Wormwood (played by Brandon McGibbon) was, he was entertaining in his ridiculousness. His tacky wife, Mrs. Wormwood (played by Darcy Stewart) was hilarious alongside her pliable ballroom dance partner Rudolpho (performed by Stephen Diaz). And while Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser) and Miss Honey (Paula Brancati) reinstated the hope that good and kind adults exist, the antagonist was so deliciously evil and intimidating, that Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy) truly brought out the best in the young actors that shone in this larger-than-live shadow.
You cannot help but be moved by the courage and conviction of the children that make up Matilda’s classmates. From the singing to the choreography, to their ability to create the atmosphere that pulls you into the story and takes you into the imaginary childhood, every song has you rooting for them all against their forbidding headmistress, who reminds them daily, “Children are maggots.”
While the soundtrack was enjoyable, I confess it won’t be what stays with me, but that’s okay because my Broadway Baby came home with the soundtrack, and has it memorized it all, along with the bios of this inspired cast. The message of hope, courage and confidence was not lost on her.
For me Matilda was a wonderful story of the power of imagination, the strength of conviction to do the right thing, and the power of great books to inspire the soul. This character proves that resiliency cannot be taught, but also cannot be broken. Powerful stuff for a little girl with big powers.
Whatever your age, you will feel young at heart in the audience of Matilda, The Musical. It is worth the time to be reminded of a good story with a good message for all.