“Matilda” the musical is a kiddie version of “Spring Awakening.” It’s family entertainment that doesn’t end in tragedy but it ain’t friendly either.
The U.S. Matilda tour made its stop in Houston, Texas for a Oct. 6-18 run at the Hobby Center. Although it is often agreed that the tour production is riddled with sound complications mingled with English-accented sensibilities that can alienate American ears, Matilda still emerges triumphant in its intricacies and makes its Best Tony Musical well deserved.
On the Sunday matinee of Oct. 11, Mabel Tyler portrays Matilda (Tyler rotates positions with Gabby Gutierrez and Mia Jenness on other showings). Tyler embodies the precocious innocence with a twinge of self-doubt. Matilda may be mentally equipped for the gruesomeness of real life, but even she can’t even confide in others about her home situation. She has confidence in herself but not quite in the world before her.
The musical opens mercilessly on an invective (“Miracle”) against indulgent parenting, where parents fatten their children with sweets and unconditional praise. But poor bookish Matilda Wormwood is denied the privilege of hyper-doting parents. Her bookishness is ridiculed by her television-addicted conman father (Quinn Mattfeld) and vapid mother (Cassie Silva). Then she’s pushed into the tyrannical school where the merciless Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness) lords over the students and demure teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood).
As an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 book, it refuses to dilute its mean-spiritedness, which had a tendency to boil controversy among parental groups in its time, especially in its portrayal of adults as purely fallible. The show’s adult characters are repulsive comic figures and the musical wastes no time hinting that anarchy is a necessity against their misdeeds.
The only good adults are the motherly librarian (Ora Jones) and the meek Miss Honey, played melodically by Blood. Although Matilda does the climatic standing up for Miss Honey, Honey’s acts of courage come from small actions: knocking on the door of Trunchbull’s office, wounding up the self-sufficiency to live in a dingy shack, and nourishing Matilda with the advance education she deserves. And Blood knows that Honey’s seemingly banal actions are humble milestones. Even though Matilda chides the deus ex machina of a fairy godmother in Cinderella in “Naughty,” she realizes she can be the godmother savior that Miss Honey deserves.
Written by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, Matilda reveres the source material plot, while it also painting its own narrative identity. There are intervals where Matilda improvises an imaginary story about an acrobat and escape artist. These sequences are expressed with impeccable child psychology through dolls, simple gestures, and shadow puppetry. And often these images would elicit gasps of horror in children. And even though Matilda’s story serves a revelatory purpose of Mrs. Honey’s arc, it’s clear that Matilda is projecting her own complicated childhood into the story.
Although I was seated on the center galley (third floor seating), the faraway view allowed me to process the complexities of the choreography. It’s the right kind of cluttered ensemble movement, not the repetitious in-line dancing with predictable patterns. And it often designed to challenge its child performers. One instance of this is the “School Song” sequence where the older students, like demons, drag the younger kids into the Gates of Hell of Trunchbull’s school. The sequence implements alphabet blocks that the older dancers acrobatically climb on as the blocks are inserted through gate holes and glow on lyrical cue. This visual hammers a caution into these children: sorry kiddos, but knowing just the ABCs is never enough to survive.
The vibrant set design paints the environment as not only colorful and childlike, but also, huge and monstrous. The lighting doesn’t just focus a spotlight on a performer, but it implicates a character’s condition through the aesthetic of geometric shapes. We hear a verbal motif of keeping children in a “circle,” alluding to Trunchbull’s Olympics memories and the lighting often shuts the superficial Wormwood family unit in a circle of light—but Matilda sits outside of the circle in her own box-shaped light. Noise accompanies intense lighting too. Take the inexplicable scene where Trunchbull hurls a girl by her pigtails and we hear the audio of overwhelming cheers of the Olympian crowd. To child audience, this is a simply disturbing scene. To adults, we recognize in the noise and flashes that Trunchbull’s dictatorial temperament stems from an unfettered superiority complex.
“Matilda” has bombastic instances while also containing deep pauses and quieter scenes. Thinking of the moving number “When I Grow Up” makes me feel adult and child all at once. There’s a remarkable image: of children lying down in the sun without worry, while Honey laments her childhood trauma that stunted her adulthood. Coming-of-age tales are commonly aimed at teens and above, but rarely does it resonate with those of grade school age when you were innocent enough to anticipate adulthood rather than dread it.
On another note, I have these photos about the experience.
BONUS FEATURE: Road to Matilda
I imagine I have the professionalism of a Houstonian rookie Uber driver. I may know the beats of downtown Houston roads, but they’re also daunting like uncharted seawaters.
Despite initial phobias of navigating those roads, it was about time I took the driver’s wheel with Mom as my passenger. The destination: the Hobby Center theater.
– Dear Lord, keep my tires safe from the evil road cracks on Elgin street.
– Ohhh, construction on this lane? Thanks for reminding us that our tax money goes to delaying us by ten minutes.
There’s a surge of fury when I turn into a supposedly active lane only to find that it’s a conga-lineup of parallel-parked cars.
– Curse the vague parking ordinances!
And much like in New York, if there’s no car in close proximity in front of you, yellow lights translate to “slam foot on gas pedal,” much to Mom’s trepidation.
The “Matilda” US tour production at the Hobby Center is the finish line prize of navigating the road. After a wondrous production despite third-floor galley seating, I wanted to meet Mabel Tyler, the Matilda of my afternoon. After theater shows, I always venture to the stage door not just to express reverence for musical performers, but because it’s also an ideal method of waiting out parking garage traffic to reduce the chances of rear-ending into someone else’s car. But when loitering at the stage door, it turned out the child actors weren’t available to sign playbills, much to the groans of children and parents.
In grief, I did a selfie with the closed Stage Door.
At least I could back up my Honda safely.
Lesson of the Day: Despite road grief and theater pricing, you have to afford to be a bit poorer when living in Houston and waste some gas. Spend on theater tickets because the memory would be greater than the cost. Yeah, pragmatically I must acknowledge tickets are about $150 in total, but as the Mastercard commercial would narrate, “watching Matilda live with your mother, priceless.”