“My mummy says I’m a miracle!
My daddy says I’m his special little guy!
I am a princess
And I am a prince.
Mum says I’m an angel sent down from the sky
My daddy says I’m his special little soldier,
No one is as handsome, strong as me.
It’s true he indulges my tendency to bulge.
But I’m his little soldier!
Hup, two, four, free!
My mummy says I’m a miracle,
One look at my face, and it’s plain to see.
Ever since the day doc chopped the umbilical cord,
It’s been clear there’s no peer for a miracle like me!”
– lyrics to “Miracle” from “Matilda: The Musical” by Tim Minchin
The fantastic touring production of “Matilda: The Musical,” now at the SHN Orpheum Theatre until August 15, opens with the rollicking number “Miracle,” in which scores of children at a fifth birthday party, surrounded by their parents, parade around the stage boisterously informing us of how precious their parents have assured them they are. As a school teacher points out, “It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-millions these days.” At the bridge of the song, we switch sets to a doctor’s office where the nine-months-pregnant Mrs. Wormwood (Cassie Silva) discovers she’s about to have a child.
It culminates with the introduction of a messy-haired blonde girl, Matilda (Mabel Tyler, full of star power), whose been fed nothing but discouragement from her parents. As the party table parts, Matilda comes forward and quietly repeats what she’s been told, “My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm./ My daddy says I’m a bore./ My mummy says I’m a jumped-up little germ./That kids like me should be against the law.” Tim Minchin’s tongue-twisting lyrics are the perfect match for the prodigy Matilda. I’ve been listening to the Broadway soundtrack on loop since catching the production, and I’m still humming it.
It’s the perfect way to set the tone for this smart, clever, humorous story of an exceptional five-year-old feminist role model. You see, Matilda is the one-in-a-million that her classmates only claim to be. Her parents may not see this, wishing that she’d set aside her books for the telly, but she keeps her mind active reading everything from Tolstoy to Dickens.
The lack of love and encouragement Matilda gets at home is tough, but she’s also got a mischievous sense of irreverence which helps her understand that it’s simply not right. As she sings in her first solo number, “Naughty,” “Just because you find that life’s not fair it/ Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it /If you always take it on the chin and wear it/ Nothing will change….We’re told we have to do what we’re told but surely/Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.” She’s a little crusader for justice, too!
The ‘90s, when the film version of “Matilda” was made, was the decade of Girl Power Fight The Patriarchy stories on film. In the last decade or so, audiences would do better to turn to the stage, where stories like “Wicked” and now “Matilda” offer better feminist tales than recent children’s films. What distinguishes “Matilda” from the other riffraff is not just the immense talent of all involved — even the children in the cast whose enunciation could be a bit better to do justice to Tim Minchin’s fast-paced tongue-twisting lyrics — and the terrific music, which are already uncommon feats. But the real star of this show is Director Matthew Warchus who exquisitely realizes the story in a visual spectacle that pulls your heartstrings, challenges the mind, and dazzles you with its cohesion and momentum.
Warchus’s work with the Olivier-winning set designer Rob Howell and choreographer Peter Darling is astonishingly good. All of the walls of the sets that come and go throughout the play feature letters of the alphabet, a tribute to the veneration for the written word that Matilda and Miss Honey share. The Wormwood’s house, a place of illiteracy, is all bright colours and tacky decor, with only a few, sparse, large lettered blocks, whereas the library features stacks of bookshelves to the ceiling of the stage, with ornamental letters. It’s a set that truly makes use of the inherent verticality of live theatre that Julie Taymor points out.
The story gets going when Matilda starts school where she meets her teacher, the sweet but meek Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), who immediately recognizes how special her student is. But school is also a scary place, reigned over by the martinet Headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (the scene-stealing Bryce Ryness). The entrance to the school is a gothic, iron gate with letters interspersed throughout, just like the rest of the set. Here, they seem rather sinister. When the older kids welcome the new students with “School Song,” it’s in a minor key, riffing on the lyrics in “Miracle.” The older kids warn the new students that being a princess means nothing in this place where the Trunchbull doles out cruel punishment for even the smallest of offenses, like stealing a piece of her chocolate cake.
Once again, Matilda finds herself in a world full of unfair rules made by grown ups who aren’t nearly as clever as she is. And she uses her wits and compassion to fight to make things better. Miss Honey’s classroom is Matilda’s sanctuary, where her intellectual curiosity and precocity are encouraged. The three rows of desks set in front of a chalkboard allow for some great choreography when the kids sing in class, already in a 3×3 formation. Although Matilda is always in the back so she’s closest to us, when she stands just a few feet to the side of the corner desk, it’s a powerful statement of how different she is from everyone else.
But the threat of Miss Trunchbull is never far away, yet another wrong that Matilda must set right, because if she doesn’t, no one else will. It’s this tyranny of the adult world that leads to one of the play’s most emotional songs. As the children sit on or stand around four tall swings centre stage, they sing “When I Grow Up,” dreaming of being adults so they can stay up late and eat candy. But there’s also an innocence and sadness that’s so true to childhood. The Trunchbull may put them through torment in phys-ed because she senses “The Smell of Rebellion,” among what she calls “revolting children.” But by the end, the children take back that language, in a battle cry that’s triumphant and clever: “We are revolting children…/Living in revolting times/We sing revolting songs/Using revolting rhymes.”
I don’t think it’s possible to leave the theatre without a giant smile on your face and a melody in your heart. But there are a few things I could nitpick though I wouldn’t want these to discourage anyone from seeing this magnificent production. The play occasionally drags when we stop to hear Matilda’s story of an escapologist, his daughter, and her evil guardian. It’s key to the play’s story arc, but Tyler isn’t quite up to holding our attention through such long monologues despite how well Warchus animates these.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about the fact that the Trunchbull is always played by a man, even though Warchus initially auditioned both men and women. On the one hand, she’s a domineering caricature, a masculine figure, and the sheer towering height of a male actor yields a powerful effect. There’s a strong tradition of gender-swapping on the English stage, and there’s humour to be had, if somewhat uncomfortably, from Ryness’s oh-so-skinny legs and the giant pillow in his chest that stands in for breasts.
On the other hand, there’s a troubling, homophobic and transphobic undertone to having the evil woman played by a cross-dressed man. Is this all that different from the fact that Disney villains tend to always be “gay-sounding,” from Scar in “The Lion King” to Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book”? I’m not sure, but despite the standing ovation Ryness received for his terrific performance, something doesn’t quite sit right. But since the gender stereotypes come from the source text, it’s going to be as much of a problem to address as making Petruchio palatable to modern day audiences in Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.”
“Matilda: The Musical” plays Tuesday – Sunday at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco until August 15, with shows on weekday evenings at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., and 2 p.m. matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Tickets range from $45–$210 and can be purchased here.