The history of kid-lit (and adult literature, for that matter) is populated by stories of neglect, privation and resilience. It makes sense: There’s no drama, really, if the tyke dies at 6 of malaria. From Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, the heroes of these tales are often young boys, but Matilda, the protagonist of novelist Roald Dahl’s tale, is a scrappy little girl. (She’s like a British Little Orphan Annie.)
I wasn’t familiar with the story going into Matilda The Musical, except what I picked up through cultural osmosis over the years. But the show, now at the Winspear, seems to combine a dystopian society where learning is frowned upon, reading is for suckers, TV is the height of human achievement and cruelty goes unjudged except by sensitive souls. (All are typical Dahl exaggerations of actual life the 1960s.) In other words, this is kid-lit that doesn’t really play to kids. And clocking in at two hours 45 minutes, is past the bedtime of a few critics, as well.
I don’t quite get the audience of Matilda, which is plot-thick, long and rangy. Personally, I didn’t pick up until midway through Act 2 that Matilda possessed telekinesis, and I didn’t understand why the school librarian was so rapt in her storytelling (the way children usually are of avuncular figures like Grandpa in The Princess Bride). And anytime you litter a stage with a half-dozen pre-adolescent voices pitched so only a dog can hear, you’re playing with acoustic fire. (At least half the lyrics sung by the young ensemble are as garbled and unintelligible as Cockney rhyming slang.)
But even with its shortcomings and “wherefore?” puzzles, ultimately Matilda The Musical works in some clever and unexpected ways. The set resembles a set of playroom building blocks; the costumes are Mod London-Meets-Dickensian BDSM; and best of all are the actors, including the little dynamo as Matilda (a rotating slate of young actresses) and Bryce Ryness, dragging it up as the hatchet-bodied headmistress Miss Trunchbull. Unacknowledged cross-dressing villains? It’s like a British panto gussied up with steampunk attitude. Adults should enjoy that more than the kiddos.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 2, 2015.