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‘Matilda The Musical,’ a warped fairy tale for our time

Three young actresses - (from left) Savannah Grace Elmer, Sarah McKinley Austin, and Lily Brooks O’Briant – will alternate in the title role of “Matilda The Musical” at the Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Brian Tietz)

The travails of physically and emotionally abused children have been the subject of everything from the fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen to the novels of Charles Dickens, and the cumulative message is pretty chilling.

British writer Roald Dahl’s immensely popular 1988 children’s book, “Matilda,” continues in the tradition, as does the show it inspired — “Matilda The Musical” — which was first produced by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, received its Broadway debut two years later, and is now making a national touring stop at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.

Far fiercer and less upbeat than the plucky heroine of, say, “Annie,” the title character in “Matilda” (played on opening night by Lily Brooks O’Briant, who alternates in the role with Sarah McKinley Austin and Savannah Grace Elmer), is a 6-year-old girl who has been unwanted from birth. (The show’s opening song, it should be noted, offers a satirical counterpoint to the abuse, as a chorus of spoiled kids echo their parents’ boasts about them being angels and “miracles.”)

Matilda’s aptly named parents — Mr. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld), a slimy, illicit car salesman, and Mrs. Wormwood (Cassie Silva), a cheesy amateur ballroom dancer — are money-crazed, low-life morons who openly curse their daughter’s arrival, and then grow terrified by her intelligence, her passion for books, and her innate belief in fairness. Her father, who has bonded with his idiot, telly-watching son, even refuses to acknowledge that she is a girl.

A scene from the national tour of “Matilda the Musical,” now at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
A scene from the national tour of “Matilda the Musical,” now at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Life at the Crunchem Hall Primary School is almost as bad as home. The principal, Miss Trunchbull (David Abeles, in heavy-handed drag), is a sadistic Olympic hammer throw champion who terrorizes her charges and punishes them by sending them to the Chokey, a sort of torture chamber.

Although Matilda bonds with her many and varied classmates (played by eight young child performers possessed of great zest and individuality), her only real sources of salvation are the Jamaican-accented school librarian, Mrs. Phelps (the wonderful Ora Jones), who is an enthusiastic audience for the elaborate stories the girl spins, and her painfully shy but insightful teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), who quickly recognizes how gifted her student is, but is thwarted in her attempts to help her.

Jennifer Blood plays Miss Honey in “Matilda the Musical” at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jennifer Blood plays Miss Honey in “Matilda the Musical” at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

‘MATILDA THE MUSICAL’

Somewhat recommended

When: Through April 10

Where: Oriental Theatre,

24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $25 – $123

Info: (800) 775-2000;

http://www.BroadwayInChicago.com

Run time: 2 hours

and 40 minutes with one intermission

Jennifer Blood (far left), David Abeles (far right) and the child performers of “Matilda The Musical.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jennifer Blood (far left), David Abeles (far right) and the child performers of “Matilda The Musical.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

If you sense some lack of enthusiasm for the show here, you are on target. “Matilda” comes with with an overly long book by Dennis Kelly, a snappy but largely unmemorable score by Tim Minchin, and direction by Matthew Warchus that turns much of the show into an unrelenting English panto. Subtlety is sacrificed in favor of the most telegraphed forms of evil and vulgarity — no doubt designed to create a contrast with the more humane librarian and teacher, and the exuberant kids. But, particularly in the first act, this grows exceedingly tiresome.

Adding to the problem here is the fact that while the actors do their best to project, many of their all important lines and lyrics are muffled by a lack of balance with the orchestra. (O’Briant’s valiant efforts at sharply clipped speech is palpable, but she was continually undermined by muddy miking on Thursday night.) This problem also afflicts Blood’s beautifully wrought Miss Honey, although she overcomes it in the show’s loveliest song, “My House.”

It is the work of choreographer Peter Darling that saves the day. Depending heavily on his gaggle of talented young kids (at times deftly backed by adults playing older students), he has set them flying on swings, dancing atop desks, somersaulting like circus acrobats, and whirling by their pigtails.

O’Briant is an impressive little Matilda — whip smart, preternaturally mature, unsmiling, physically fleet, undeterred. When it is time for her character to speak Russian, she does it with elan. She also plays the final scene with her father to perfection.

Matilda’s irrepressible classmates include: Ryan Christopher Dever (the chocolate cake-eater who hilariously bursts into a blaze of soul-singing late in the show); tiny Aristotle Rock, who moves as if on springs; Charlie Kersh, as Matilda’s quirky best girlfriend; Trey Middleton as the boy Matilda saves from punishment; and Austyn Johnson, Cassidy Hagel and Jordan Hall.

Rob Howell’s set features crazyquilt printed walls of books and wooden alphabet blocks, and those old-fashioned desks that somehow suggest the oppressiveness of a classroom.

This show’s “family audience” will certainly find many moments to enjoy here, even if the story is more complicated than many (no matter what their age) might be fully able to explain. For me, the best part of the evening came from the audience where one wild burst of laughter from a 4-year-old girl seated in my row was more delicious than almost anything on stage.