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 March 16 , 2012

This Matilda Does More than Just Waltz

Perhaps the best news of 2012 is that Matilda will come to Broadway in 2013. The London musical deserves to be seen everywhere, because it has a message well worth hearing.

In these times when ignorance is more accepted than ever – and intelligence less valued than ever – can anything be done to return to an appreciation of knowledge?

Inside the Cambridge Theatre, the stage sports hundreds of Scrabble tiles of various sizes, colors and fonts. That’s a fitting environment for Matilda, a girl of letters who’ll battle a headmistress who’s more interested in the letter of the law.

But Matilda’s problems start even before she comes into the world. Her parents-to-be, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, are utterly stupid. Her mother doesn’t understand why she’s gaining weight and her stomach is so extended. That she might be pregnant simply doesn’t occur to her. (This is one of the changes expert bookwriter Dennis Kelly had made from Roald Dahl’s original children’s book. Fans of the book will see others.)

Given that Mrs. Wormwood has already had a child -- albeit more than a dozen years earlier – her ignorance seems hard to swallow. But it won't be the last unorthodox idea found in Matilda. Using musical theater’s famous “first ten minutes’ axiom” -- in which the ground rules that are set up early define the night -- we know we’re entering a fanciful world.

Mr. Wormwood is as dense as his wife, but to make matters worse, he’s insensitive, too. The expectant father wants a boy, and is horrified that the newborn turns out to have “no frank and beans” between “his” legs. He isn’t above carping, "This is the worst day of my life."

There will be many worse days for Matilda. Dad’s in such denial that he’ll always call her "Boy."

By now, the audience is saying "Boy" as well -- as in "Boy, have you ever seen a kid like this?" How many other pre-schoolers are reading A Tale of Two Cities? But that’s Matilda, a voracious reader.

Not that her parents appreciate her thirst for knowledge. When she asks her mother, “Would you like to hear a story?” Mrs. Wormwood snaps, “Don't be disgusting.” Her father, when seeing her reading, snarls, “You – bookworm!” with the same harsh judgment he’d use as if he were saying, “You f**king idiot!”

Compare this with the other kids and parents Matilda meets. Her schoolmates insist “My mummy says I’m a miracle,” for indeed their mothers -- and fathers -- believe that their darling children can do no wrong. When one pair of parents learns that their son “got a ‘C’ on his report,” they immediately assume that “The teacher’s clearly falling short.”

Their teachers beg to differ. As they dolefully observe in one of songwriter Tim Minchin’s better lyrics “It seems that there are a million of these ‘one-in-a-millions.’”

But this is before Miss Honey meets Matilda, whom she soon realizes is one in a trillion. The teacher sees that reading empowers Matilda. From reading everything from Cinderella to Romeo and Juliet, she realizes, “We’re told we have to do what we’re told, but surely sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.” Her conclusion is a most realistic “Nobody but me is gonna change my story” and she’ll do what she can to see that there are some changes made. Being so smart, however, makes her as popular with her classmates as Elphaba was in her freshman year at Shiz.

After one particularly grueling night at home, can we blame Matilda for storming into the local library and asking, “Where’s the ‘Revenge’ section?” Actually, Matilda’s well-equipped to write a hair-raising story of her own, one that terribly depresses the librarian. “And then,” Matilda says, not remotely through, “things got worse.” However, what’s poignant is that Matilda then verbally paints a picture of a father who’s the man that she wants him to be.

Miss Honey wishes she had Matilda’s courage, and in song says that she’s “Pathetic” – especially when she assesses the way she panders to Miss Trunchbull, the round-shouldered, heavy-set harridan headmistress. It’s one thing for kids to sing, “When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night.” But to have Miss Honey sing it is another.

At this point, Matilda seems to be implying that teachers are courage-impaired losers. Actually, Miss Trunchbull has a genuine hold over Miss Honey that will be revealed sometime later.

Miss Trunchbull’s policy towards children isn’t just to “keep ‘em busy, keep ‘em quiet.” She’s quite the fascist. "Children are maggots," she insists. “To teach the child, we must first break the child.” So, while the parents go too far in adulating their kids, Miss Trunchbull goes to the other extreme and makes them feel worthless. “You don’t need happiness or self-esteem,” she insists. “Find the line and toe it.” So imagine what a threat a gifted child such as Matilda will be to her.

Miss Honey realizes that she must go to bat for Matilda. "What sort of teacher would I be,” she asks herself, “if I let this little girl fall through the cracks?" One of the most poignant moments comes when she brings Matilda some books from – causing Matilda to immediately hug her with gratitude, passion and, yes, love.

Of course, when Matilda brings the books home, she doesn’t get a good reception from her father. He claims, “A picture is worth a thousand words, so telly is the equivalent of lots of books.” His values may be off, but there is logic in his logic, however simplistic it may be.

Miss Trunchbull is portrayed with snarling malevolence in the British panto tradition by Bertie Carvel. Having a man in drag play the role is really an asset, for we’d be thrust into a too-bitter reality if a genuine actress played her.

Some may rebut, “What about Miss Hannigan? An actress has always played her.” Yes, but Miss Hannigan is Little Mary Sunshine next to this shrew. Just compare the titles of the songs these characters sing, and determine which pair sounds fiercer: “Little Girls” and “Easy Street” vs. “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion.”

Miss Hannigan makes the orphans say, “I love you, Miss Hannigan,” showing she has some need for approval. Miss Trunchbull instead punishes a boy by making him eat an entire enormous cake. (The song the kids sing while he eats sounds perilously like "Dirt" from Sweet Smell of Success.) When the boy surprises her by successfully eating it all, Miss Trunchbull starts choking the lad. Only Matilda has the courage to cry out, "That's not right!" And when Miss Trunchbull grabs a student’s ears and stretches them out as far as they can go, Matilda yells, “You big fat bully!”

That’s not the extent of Matilda’s wrath. Her song “Quiet” is a patter song that makes “Getting Married Today” seem to be at “Ol’ Man River’s” tempo. Cleo Demetriou, one of the four actresses who rotate as Matilda, maneuvers through it with seemingly little effort. But even before she arrived at this point in the show, I’d already decided that this was the finest child performer I’d ever seen.

To be fair, many a Matilda-attendee who’s only caught one of the other current three – Kerry Ingram, Sophia Kiely and Eleanor Worthington Cox – has sworn to me that the Matilda he saw just had to be the best. Perhaps, but what I loved about Demetriou is that she shows she’s there to serve the musical, and not to have it serve her as a platform for audiences to say, “Isn’t she great?” Too few child performers are as free as Demetriou of the need to convey, “Hey, aren’t I terrific?”

Clearly, Matilda needs refuge from both parents and Miss Trunchbull, and Miss Honey offers her a home. Matilda is horribly depressed when she enters. “Are you poor?” she asks. “Don’t they pay teachers much?” The audience emits a collective bitter laugh of recognition. Wouldn’t it be nice if Matilda was attended by people who could change the injustice of low teacher salaries – and were shamed enough to do so?

Here comes a spoiler alert for those who don’t want to know how it all turns out. It’s included for those who don’t see themselves getting to London or New York in the next couple of years. Mr. Wormwood has made the mistake of angering some Russian thugs. They burst into his house to enact a painful revenge, but Matilda implores them not to – in Russian. The chief thug is amazed that the kid can speak his language, but as she modestly explains, when you read Dostoevsky, you really have to read him in his native language.

Because of her surprising skill, the thug says that Matilda can decide her father’s fate. This was the kid, remember, who wanted to locate the “Revenge” section in the library, so we’re prepared for a decapitation.

No, Matilda forgives her insensitive father and asks that he be pardoned. I’m guessing that she learned to be gracious from reading the great works of literature and learning their valuable lessons. The show ends with father and daughter shaking hands. Note: they do not kiss. No one’s going to accuse this show of being sentimental.

Some have alleged that Billy Elliot’s Broadway run wasn’t commensurate with the reviews or the awards because it was too British-centric. Will Matilda meet the same good-but-not-great fate? One difference is that Billy’s plot – boy wants to be in show business and his family doesn’t understand -- has a familiarity about it. Matilda, despite its well-known book and well-received film (which was Americanized), is refreshingly different.

So is there big gross potential for this show? I say Matilda will make enough money to run Venezuela.                                                                                                                                               — Peter Filichia


You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at His book Broadway Musical MVPs 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available at

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