How do you solve a problem like Matilda? Given that Roald Dahl's 1988 children's novel has been beloved for years by girls who identify with the title character — unloved by her parents and bullied by her headmistress — a stage version seems almost de rigueur. But is this really a substantial enough story to justify a 2 ½-hour multimillion-dollar musical?
As can now be seen at Broadway's Shubert Theatre, Tony Award-winning director Matthew Warchus' rather ingenious solution is to attack this slight tale — faithfully adapted by Dennis Kelly — with relentless theatricality. Kids on scooters, adults on swings, a sudden display of gymnastics (smartly staged by Peter Darling), all appear unexpectedly. Rob Howell's clever set, dominated by hundreds of Scrabble-like tiles, morphs on a moment's notice to reveal everything from a sliding pond to a book-strewn library. Thanks to this magic, it is often easy to forget that there's not much at stake in the story or that Matilda (the steely Oona Laurence at my performance) isn't totally sympathetic.
It's true that her loutish parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita) — an oily car salesman and self-absorbed, floozyish dancer — not only disdain their daughter, but Dad keeps calling her a boy. Still, she gives as good as she gets, playing on her father a series of practical jokes ranging from dying his hair green to supergluing his hat to his head.
In fact, you never doubt that Matilda will triumph over every situation and every enemy, even cruel headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel), a former Olympic hammer-throwing champion who despises her charges and believes in byzantine punishments. Matilda also has everyone else on her side, from adoring classmates to librarian Mrs. Phelps (the delightful Karen Aldridge), who is enraptured by Matilda's odd story about an escapologist and acrobat, and the especially sad-sack teacher Jenny Honey (Lauren Ward), who ultimately becomes the character for whom we most find ourselves cheering.
Warchus has long proven himself an expert in casting, and using Carvel, a man, to play the female Trunchbull proves to be a stroke of genius. The drag aspect is underplayed — you almost instantly realize you're watching a man who's been dressed to look like a 1970s East German female athlete. But the gender reversal adds another dimension to a character who could easily be a second-rate Miss Hannigan. More importantly, Carvel so fully embraces Agatha's meanness — not just to the kids, but to anyone in her path — that you anxiously await her comeuppance and have no second thoughts about rooting for it to occur.
One could poo-poo the casting of Ward as sheer nepotism (the American-born actress is married to Warchus) but her performance could scarcely be better. The book takes way too long to fully explain why Miss Honey is scared of her own shadow, never mind Agatha, but Ward engages our sympathy throughout. Her sterling soprano, too-long-absent from our shores, is also the perfect vehicle for the ballad "My House," one of composer-lyricist Tim Minchin's most memorable creations. The song also stands out, as well, because we understand every word: Ward's English accent is simply not as thick as many of her castmates.
Ebert (unrecognizable from his work in last season's 4000 Miles) is deliciously despicable as Mr. Wormwood. He shows off a surprising song-and-dance flair in the second-act opener "Telly" (accompanied by the very funny Taylor Trensch as his idiotic son, Michael), while the dazzlingly ditzy Margherita adds a dose of Absolutely Fabulous' Patsy to her portrayal of the clueless Mrs. Wormwood.
In the end, Matilda may not prove to be every adult's (or young boy's) cup of tea, but there are more than enough young girls — and mothers — to keep this musical on Broadway for years to come.