Roald Dahl’s seminal children’s novel about a genius little girl growing up in a world of corrupt, unloving adults is one of the great texts of the 20th century. The wonderful 1996 film adaptation that Americanizes the heavily Thatcher-influenced book brought the story iconic stature among millennial kids. The 2010 musical adaptation of the novel is fine. It’s cute- a few tunes (“Revolting Children”, “My House”, “Naughty”) are pretty catchy, the “When I Grow Up” swing choreography is perfection, and the chalkboard magic is impressive- but the structure is something of a mess (there’s a big climax followed by an interminable scene with the Russian mob), the themes are a little murky (should we be telling kids they’re special or no?) and the choice to make Miss Trunchbull (a singular, iconic female villain refreshingly not defined by vanity) into a drag character just makes me mad. It’s fine. It deservedly lost the Tony to Kinky Boots but, as a family-friendly choice for Mirvish’s follow-up to said Tony winning smash hit, Matilda makes a lot of programming sense and I couldn’t be more thrilled to see Toronto’s commercial theatre leader investing in another resident, Canadian cast production.
Musical theatre- especially productions of new musicals- is a staging business, not a directing one, so the Mirvish production is almost identical to the West End original, complete with scrabble jumble set and clever magic tricks (Bruce’s disappearing chocolate cake is a ton of fun). What makes any given production stand out is the casting. I may hate that a man has the role of Miss Trunchbull but, if it has to go to a man, I can’t imagine anyone better in the role than Dan Chameroy. One of the cornerstone performers of Canadian musical theatre, Chameroy has created a second career post-romantic leads in the niche market of cross-dressed pantomime aunties. His Plumbum credentials come into play in a big way in his broad performance as the barrel-chested headmistress, if only the text made any room at all for his dramatic chops to play some of the horrible sadness that makes Trunchbull so bullish.
The best written role in the musical goes to Brandon McGibbon, a musician/actor (the Elastocitizens guitar player) usually known for playing cool guys (Tarragon’s Enemy of the People, Soulpepper’s LaRonde) who totally abandons his rocker edge but maintains all the swagger as sleazy egomaniac Mr. Wormwood. The threat of missing his hilarious rendition of “Telly” proves the key to ushering the audience back in after intermission (the number bizarrely begins before the house lights dim). Paula Brancati is charming and vulnerable as Miss Honey, insightfully playing up the humanizing cowardice that the adaptation has smartly not shied away from including in the heroic character. At opening, Brancati used her belt voice for far more high notes than make sense for the character or the score but I wouldn’t be surprised if she learned to lay off that temptation as the run continues. The other standout is Justin Packard who plays the dual role of Escape Artist and Doctor, the former playing a more important role in the story but the latter (a tiny role just in the first scene) making a much bigger impression with the only real powerhouse vocals of the show.
Matilda is a solid piece of musical theatre fun. It’s far from perfect and certainly will not be remembered as the definitive telling of the story but it’s an excellent, commercial choice for a resident Canadian production that can serve as a great introduction for kids to the theatre. I hope to see it extended many times over.