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Review: 'Matilda the Musical' shows it's never too late for a happy childhood

The cast of Matilda the Musical features several star children, as well as some adults as schoolchildren in the chorus.
The cast of Matilda the Musical features several star children, as well as some adults as schoolchildren in the chorus.
Published Feb. 25, 2016

TAMPA — A charming Broadway musical is passing through town, appropriately a couple weeks after the state fair.

Matilda the Musical resembles a carnival midway even more than most touring shows, packed with arresting pieces of interlocking machinery, unthinkably garish costumes and explosions of light. A man on stilts greeted theater patrons, including a number of children, streaming into the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

The production, based on a novel by Roald Dahl, won an Olivier Award for Best New Musical and got 13 Tony nominations, winning five trophies. The most relevant of the wins for local audiences might be Rob Howell's set, a cathedral of alphabet letters floating like fragments of thoughts. The set and costumes mirror the mind of a precocious child who sees most adults as grotesque and a few as magical. Another Tony nod went to Tim Minchin's score and lyrics, full of pizazz and a biting disrespect for authority on the scale of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The plot stacks a few layers high, each representing another layer of trauma inflicted on Matilda Wormwood, who unlike other children can counterattack in devastating, and eminently satisfying, ways.

She was born to a mother so self-absorbed she did not know she was pregnant and a used car salesman father who had wanted a boy. By the time she enters the first grade, Matilda has taught herself to read Dickens and Dostoevsky, Melville and Austen.

The school run by the sadistic Miss Trunchbull, a former hammer throwing champion, looks like a stone room in the Tower of London. Of all the adults Matilda encounters, only librarian Mrs. Phelps (played sympathetically by Ora Jones) and teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) can even imagine this child's needs.

The rest despise her. Their rancor closes in on her like the jaws of a bear trap, which can only be escaped through ingenuity and magic. The open hostilities between Matilda and her evil authority figures make for dozens of hilarious moments.

The leads all needed to stand out, and fortunately they do. You could really take your pick of favorite performer. For me it was Quinn Mattfeld as Mr. Wormwood, a wonderfully physical comedian who turns the guilty pleasure of slapstick into a wholesome delight.

Cassie Silva as Mrs. Wormwood owns the stage with the song Loud, a Dancing With the Stars putdown of the plainly dressed Miss Honey, who has come to plead with her to move Matilda to a higher grade. That number alone, with her flamenco lover Rudolpho (Michael Graceffa), is worth about $25. David Abeles quite capably inflicts pain as the joyless Miss Trunchbull, one of several inventive casting choices (some adults as schoolchildren round out the chorus).

The love story is of a nurturing kind between Miss Honey and Matilda, who grow toward each other despite mountainous obstacles. Blood handles her role with poise and clarity, not an easy thing when surrounded by such flamboyance. And Lily Brooks O'Briant, 9, does a remarkable job as Matilda, mastering reams of material in a focused and purposeful way.

It would be a shame not to mention the performances of other children, including an endearing turn by Charlie Kersh as Matilda's friend, Lavender, and a show-stealing supporting job by Ryan Christopher Dever, who is forced by Miss Trunchbull to eat an entire cake after stealing a slice.

The narrative includes an allegorical tale told by Matilda to Mrs. Phelps, about a circus acrobat and an escape artist who wish they could have a child. She is making up the story as she goes, and admits she doesn't know how it will end. No need to give that away here either. You'll just have to see Matilda the Musical before this show leaves town.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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