Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel about a precocious five-year-old (she reads difficult books, understands grown-ups at a deep level, and has telekinetic powers a la Stephen King’s Carrie) is a dark, troubling work. Matilda is a profoundly lonely child living in a cruel world and surrounded by addled adults, notably her shallow and materialistic parents and a school headmistress so selfish and sadistic she makes Miss Hannigan from the musical Annie seem kind. The show is full of moments of extreme violence and cruelty: at one point the headmistress picks up one of the children in her school, spins around, and tosses the child like a hapless rag doll hundreds of feet in the air. Yet the show is considered fit for kids.
Kelly’s book is awkward and fragmented. It’s sometimes hard to tell who the main character is—Matilda is often an observer of events in the story, not central to them—and the style of the show is so inconsistent—careening from loud, cartoonish comic scenes to somber scenes of Dickensian oppression—that it seems always on the verge of falling to pieces.
This Drury Lane production, directed and choreographed by Mitch Sebastian, feels true to the material, which is a cold comfort. The show, though, is packed with superb performances. Audrey Edwards, who shares the lead role with Natalie Galla, is quit winning as the plucky Matilda. She is surrounded by a host of similarly gifted young actors, each a star in her or his own right. And Sean Fortunato does a bravura turn in drag as the above-mentioned headmistress. v