NEW YORK (AP) — The last Broadway performance of "Mary Poppins" — that sugary-sweet ode to good children and even better caregivers — was delivered March 3. Twenty-four hours later, the pitch-dark "Matilda" began performances a few blocks away. It was as if neither vision of childhood could exist in New York at the same time.
Well, say goodbye to perfect nannies and jolly children: This is the time for messy kids to be called maggots, adults to be either nincompoops or fiends, and for childhoods to resemble something more Pink Floyd than Disney.
The English hit "Matilda," which opened Thursday at Shubert Theatre, is a witty musical adaptation of the beloved novel by Roald Dahl and is true to his bleak vision of childhood as a savage battleground.
The musical arrives in New York with plenty of hype and awards, and it mostly delivers a thrilling blast of nasty fun, even if it's a bit swollen and in need of some fine-tuning. It also has come with perhaps its most grotesque masterstroke: Bertie Carvel as the fearsome cross-dressing school headmistress Miss Trunchbull.
The 2½-hour musical tells the story of a precocious and slightly telekinetic Matilda Wormwood, an English girl who loves to read despite the disdain of her sleazy parents. She is befriended by a kindly teacher but opposed by Trunchbull, who is suspicious of this girl and vows: "I shall crush you! I shall pound you!"
Matthew Warchus, whose last trip to Broadway was with "Ghost the Musical," directs with the same addiction to special effects — lasers, confetti, ghostly projections, gym mats, dancing strollers, animation, running between the aisles and pedestals rising from the stage — but this time the hyperactivity fits perfectly. Rob Howell's sets of huge Scrabble tiles, alphabet blocks and books are clever and thrilling.
Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are probably at their best with the rousing and sly "Miracle," ''Telly," ''When I Grow Up" and "The Smell of Rebellion." He is in masterful touch with the frustration and comfortableness of being a kid, as well as a funny critic of any parents who believe their little princesses and princes are really royalty.
When everything is working, this is first-rate theater, as when Peter Darling's choreography, Howell's sets, the songwriters and actors do with the tune "School Song," when children climb up the school gates with each step linked to a letter in the lyrics.
But the score is a little bloated by songs that slow the action — "Pathetic" and "My House" are among the biggest offenders. Some of the older kids seem closer to being candidates for master's degrees than 5-year-olds. And Dennis Kelly's book could see some more finessing, particularly with Trunchbull's silent final denouement. A monster like this needs to be publicly destroyed.
But that's not Carvel's fault. He delivers one of the most chilling performances ever by a man in a too-high skirt. She's a hate-spewing headmistress built like a tank who was once an Olympic-class hammer thrower. She wields a gym whistle like a weapon, twirls a ribbon with panache, speaks in a flat, emotionless voice like Dr. Hannibal Lechter and at one point picks up a child by her pigtails and spins her around.
The heroine is played on a rotating basis by Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro. Oona was on duty as Matilda during a recent preview, and she proved a delightfully talented force, jumping around the stage with skill and yet also able to sing a pretty "Quiet."
Lauren Ward plays Miss Honey — she and Carvel are the only actors to make the jump from London — and is quite sweet, but she sticks out here as quite too sweet. She's a bit of a wimp and sings in one song that her sad little house is "enough," only to immediately trade it in for a nicer one. Ward's voice is lovely, but she has two of the weakest songs in the show.
Gabriel Ebert as Matilda's stupid father is brilliantly elastic, a man capable of vaudeville style broadness whose top-of-Act 2 rendition of "Telly" — a tongue-in-cheek celebration of TV ("All you need to fill your muffin/without having to really think or nuffin") — is a reason not to go to the bathroom at intermission.
It's a great year to be a kid on Broadway, from the orphans at "Annie" to the youngsters at "Motown the Musical" and "Kinky Boots." But at "Matilda," the kids burp, have their hair uncombed, let their socks fall down and plot revenge ("If it's not right/You have to put it right.") That would never have happened if Mary Poppins were around.
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