Local fans of Roald Dahl's 1988 children's novel Matilda have likely been eager to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's five-year-old musical based on it, which is a dark and boisterous adaptation by director Matthew Warchus and music and lyrics by Australian songwriter Tim Minchin. And with good reason, given its accolades in London and on Broadway (where it's been running since 2013), and given Minchin's musical talents perhaps known best in the U.S. for a personal Christmas ballad he wrote a couple years back, "White Wine in the Sun." And while the touring company and production now playing through SHN at the Orpheum Theater do decent justice to the humor and ensemble energy of the piece, much of the young cast is still struggling with the lyrically complex songs, and adults looking to hear the nuances of the dialogue and lyrics are likely going to be left disappointed.
The undisputed star of the show, next to Rob Howell's beautifully "illustrated" sets, is Bryce Ryness, who takes on the scenery-chewing role of Miss Trunchbull the ever-so-Dahlian, child-hating villain of the story. Miss Trunchbull runs Crunchem Hall Elementary School, where Matilda's crass English parents send their nuisance of a precocious daughter as soon as she's of school age (five years old). Ryness plays the role in drag as Bertie Carvel did in the original cast and now Christopher Sieber is doing on Broadway, and he ably evokes this fearsome, angry woman, a former "hammer throwing" champion, whose central pleasure in life is punishing children and who refers to them all as "maggots." Trunchbull is hilariously awful, at one point (famously in the book) picking up a girl and swinging her around by the pigtails so hard that she flies off hundreds of feet through the air an effect that's reproduced on stage to all the kids' delight.
I will also say that the choreography by Billy Elliot choreographer Peter Darling is as comically angry and punchy as it is original.
This is, ultimately, more a show for children than anything else, though there is plenty of PG humor especially from the shrill pair of performers playing Matilda's ballroom-dance-obsessed mom and car salesman dad, Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfield to keep adults chuckling throughout. And the heartwarming bond between Miss Honey (the talented Jennifer Bond) and the whip-smart Matilda rings an appropriately sentimental note.
It's when the child-actor cast has to deliver on some of that verbal humor that things start to come undone in this production. Though the one of three actresses playing Matilda whom I saw on opening night (Mabel Tyler) was enormously talented and mostly articulate, there were moments throughout the show when lines delivered by all of the kids were said over-fast, and mostly in a yell (which is doubly unclear when miked), and I'd estimate that I only understood about 40 percent of what was said when it came from them. Similarly, when singing, much of the dense poetry of Minchin's lyrics which can be enjoyed better on the original cast recording got lost in a garbled shout, with songs coming out of young mouths in the rote, rushed way that you might hear "America the Beautiful" shout-sung in a classroom. There's also the added difficulty of making American children do British accents, which only complicates things further.
For a lot of parents with kids, this isn't going to be a huge problem. So long as the songs are bouncy and the visual jokes still work, and Mrs. Trunchbull still stomps around with great gusto, there will be standing ovations every night, as there was at the performance I saw Friday. And fans of the soundtrack who haven't seen the production will likely be happy to see it staged despite these flaws the big second-act ensemble number for "When I Grow Up," easily the catchiest song in the score, which involves four swings dangling over the stage, is almost worth the price of admission (though I'd challenge you to make out a phrase like "When I grow up / I will be strong enough to carry all / the heavy things you have to haul / around with you when you're a grown-up!" if you didn't already know the words).
Kids love the worlds of Roald Dahl because they refract the cruelty of the real world, and of archetypal bullies, back through a cartoonish lens they can understand and laugh at, and Matilda is no exception. The show delights in the cruelty of adults, and in pranks, and it's not like you need to catch every word to appreciate those. At the risk of sounding like one of those very child-hating adults I'll just say that I suspect that London and Broadway audiences wouldn't have embraced this show as much as they have if the young casts there were this unpolished.
Then again, when everyone glides onto stage on their scooters for the closing reprise of "When I Grow Up," all is forgiven and it is a ridiculously joyful number.
Matilda plays through August 15th. Tickets here.