This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001



MATILDA (photo © 2013 by Joan Marcus)

Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel) declares that “children are maggots” in MATILDA (photo by Joan Marcus)

Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 6, 2014, $32-$157

The best musical to hit the Great White Way since The Book of Mormon, the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda is a dazzling spectacle, a sensational gift from across the pond. Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel, Matilda follows the trials and tribulations of young Matilda Wormwood (played alternately by Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon, and Milly Shapiro), an extraordinarily gifted nine-year-old who loves to read books and tell stories. But her sleazy car-salesman father (Gabriel Ebert), who is involved in a shady deal with some Russians, and her self-obsessed mother (Lesli Margherita), who is training for a dance competition with hot-to-trot partner Rudolpho (Phillip Spaeth), want her to give up books and instead be more like her older brother, the dim-witted Michael (Taylor Trensch), who spends his days watching TV and grunting. At school, her teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), recognizes Matilda’s promise and wants to escalate her education, but the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel in magnificent drag), prefers to punish kids — by sending them off to the terrifying Chokey — rather than promote learning. Meanwhile, Matilda tells an intriguing story to Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge), the school librarian, about a doomed relationship between an acrobat (Samantha Sturm) and an escapologist (Ben Thompson) that is a metaphor for Matilda’s awful family life. But with the help of her remarkable self-possession and unending determination, Matilda is not about to give up her unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

Matilda (Molly Shapiro) tells illuminating, and very adult, stories to Mrs. Phelps the librarian (Karen Aldridge) in MATILDA (photo by Joan Marcus)

Matilda (Molly Shapiro) tells illuminating, and very adult, stories to Mrs. Phelps the librarian (Karen Aldridge) in MATILDA (photo by Joan Marcus)

Winner of seven Olivier Awards, Matilda is a complete triumph from start to finish, from the opening “Miracle” scene, in which the kids are all introduced at a birthday party, to the closing ensemble piece, “Revolting Children.” Every detail is filled with magic, from Rob Howell’s letter-laden sets, which spell out various words that appear during the course of the show, and his inventive, very funny costumes, particularly for Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s father, to Peter Darling’s choreography, which reaches jaw-dropping proportions when the stage turns into a three-dimensional Scrabble board. Shapiro is extraordinary as the title character, employing just the right mix of wry cynicism and childhood wonder, as Dennis Kelly’s book and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics capture Dahl’s unique tone and spirit. “So you think you’re able to survive this mess / by being a prince or a princess / you will soon see / there’s no escaping tragedy,” the kids sing in the bouncy but ominous “School Song,” continuing, “And even if you put in heaps of effort / you’re just wasting energy / ’cause your life as you know it / is ancient history.” The large cast also includes Frenie Acoba as Lavender, who develops a delightfully devilish little plan, and Jack Broderick as Bruce, who has a thing for chocolate cake, but even with all the cute and talented kids around, it’s Carvel as the hunchbacked Miss Trunchbull who steals the show, declaring that “children are maggots” as she takes delight in destroying even the tiniest bits of happiness they might find. Impressively directed by Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage, Boeing-Boeing), Matilda creates a world of pure imagination, yet one with darkness hovering around every corner, the must-see musical of the season.

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