In a banner year for stupidity, this summer's big Mirvish show strikes a blow for intelligence and wit.
Up until now, 2016 has been a banner year for ignorance—see: the Trump candidacy, Britain’s exit from the EU—so it’s a refreshing treat to encounter a musical that celebrates intelligence, learning, logic, creativity, and a strong sense of right and wrong. All of which qualities are embodied in one feisty five-year-old rebel named Matilda.
The little girl, and her namesake musical—receiving a boisterous premiere Canadian production at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre—represent all the values that the haters of the world would trample underfoot in favour of blinkered self-interest. To see those values triumph—if only in the context of one of Roald Dahl’s dark, satirical fairy tales—is to feel a surge of hope that maybe, just maybe, brainier heads will prevail.
Matilda’s head certainly has more than the typical allotment of brains. Lavender (Riley O’Donnell), her self-appointed new best friend at Crunchem Hall school, believes Matilda has so much grey matter it might come pouring out of her ears, and vows to be there to catch it. Matilda, you see, is a human calculator and a voracious bookworm who has already devoured such classics as Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, and Crime and Punishment—the latter, in the original Russian.
You’ll note that her reading list favours books about young people who are bullied and abused, most often by adults and frequently in the name of “education.” That is also Matilda’s plight. Her unloving parents are a pair of twits—Mr. Wormwood (Brandon McGibbon) is a devious-but-dumb car salesman, Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) is a bimbo obsessed with dance competitions, and her adored older brother Michael (Darren Burkett) is a monosyllabic dolt. Matilda’s mum and dad berate their black-sheep daughter for wasting her time reading books—that is, when they aren’t ignoring her entirely.
Things get even worse when Matilda is sent off to Crunchem Hall, whose principal, the hairbun-rocking, hard-assed tyrant Miss Trunchbull, is a Dickensian cartoon of child-hating nastiness. A former Olympic hammer-thrower, she now likes to throw little girls skyward by their pigtails. Other students are punished in “chokey”—her own variation on an iron maiden, consisting of a cramped closet bristling with nails and broken glass.
Miss Trunchbull is incarnated here with dour relish by Dan Chameroy, that master/mistress of drag, looking like a bloated brown spider with a face that resembles Frankenstein’s monster after a makeover. Battle axes don’t come grimmer than this. Only that deliciously fluty voice reveals this to be the same Chameroy who camps it up so hilariously as the lovable Plumbum of the Ross Petty pantos.
Chameroy’s casting is inspired (if perhaps inevitable), but it’s only one of many felicitous choices in this Mirvish mounting of the much-awarded West End/Broadway show, originally created for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010. McGibbon and Stewart prove a perfect pair of parental monsters as the Wormwoods, with McGibbon especially good as the classic oily spiv. Looking like Monty Python’s Eric Idle in the famous “nudge, nudge” sketch, he opens the second act with a rousing ode to the mindless glories of telly. He and his precious pomaded hair are also the target of Matilda’s practical jokes—for Matilda, apart from being a brainiac, survives by indulging a wicked sense of mischief. Or, as she frankly explains to us (singing Tim Minchin’s smart lyrics), “sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.”
If you don’t stand up to the bullies and try to “change your story,” you wind up like sweet, spineless Miss Honey, Matilda’s teacher at Crunchem Hall, played here with endearing dejection by Paula Brancati. Miss Honey recognizes Matilda’s brilliance, but her timid efforts to bring it to the attention of the formidable, phys-ed-fixated Trunchbull are doomed to fail. At one point, Matilda visits Miss Honey’s home—a converted farm shed, where she went to live after being cheated out of an inheritance. Her song about resolutely making do, “My House,” is one of the saddest things you’ll ever hear—certainly as sung with stiff-upper-lip pathos by Brancati.
And what of Matilda herself? It’s a big role for a little performer and there are four girls rotating through it for this production: Hannah Levinson, Jaime MacLean, Jenna Weir, and Sarah McKinley Austin. Levinson took the part on opening night and did an impressive job. The picture of prepubescent pragmatism, she charmed the audience just as surely as Matilda charms the story-hungry librarian Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser) with her continuing tale of an acrobat (Kim Sava) and an escape artist (Justin Packard).
Levinson is joined by a troop of spirited juveniles (augmented by some older, adult “kids”) as the inmates of Crunchem. O’Donnell is winning as chatty Lavender, the BFF who shares Matilda’s taste for pranks—one of which, involving a newt and a water jug, leads to the revelation of a supernatural side to Matilda’s brain power. Aiden Bushey is no less sparky as Bruce, the young glutton who manages to bravely stomach Trunchbull’s “have your cake and eat it” punishment.
One is torn between critiquing the lack of English accents among the youngsters (also true of the Broadway show), or simply accepting this as a transatlantic treatment of a British musical. It doesn’t spoil your enjoyment, so why make a fuss?
Certainly, the spirit of the original 1988 novel is here, both in Dahl’s taste for the subversive and grotesque, and in his illustrator Quentin Blake’s scruffy, angular style—reflected in Rob Howell’s cheerfully ragged set, with its jumbles of Scrabble letters, and his costumes inspired by Blake’s drawings. The musical’s faithful book is by playwright Dennis Kelly, whose own taste for the subversive was on display earlier this year when Storefront Theatre gave his cunning mockumentary play Taking Care of Baby its Canadian debut. The songs by Australian satirist Minchin are witty, wordy, and sometimes quite lovely—in particular, “When I Grow Up,” a child’s idyllic view of adulthood, sung by the schoolkids while they sweep out above the audience on swings.
The swinging scene is one of many nice touches in director Matthew Warchus’s nimble staging. This is not one of those big shows stuffed with special effects, but instead makes clever use of some old-school theatrical sleight-of-hand. The scene in which the pigtail-wearing Amanda (Isabella Stuebing) is sent whirling through the air by Miss Trunchbull is a perfect example. Not only is it brilliantly executed, it turns Trunchbull’s sadism into a harmless sight gag.
That said, if you’re considering taking a little Matilda or Bruce to the show, there are times when it might prove a wee too intense for very young theatregoers. Those ages eight and older, however, will love it. You will, too.