The extraordinary power of Matilda: hit musical waltzes to more success on Broadway

New York critics give show rapturous reception on opening night

David Usborne@dusborne
Friday 12 April 2013 22:27
Matilda has been described as one of the best ever British musicals to hit Broadway
Matilda has been described as one of the best ever British musicals to hit Broadway

The dull-brained tormentors of little Matilda – her gauche parents and terrifying headteacher Miss Trunchbull – would surely despair.

The musical play that bears her name, and in which all four characters star, has arrived on Broadway and conquered it with rambunctious splendour.

More precisely, the British-made musical seems to have generated a rare kind of critical frenzy, as if American reviewers were suddenly delivered a morsel of unspeakable delectation after a long period of relative starvation. It is a reception that augers both high harvest at this season’s Tony Awards, and high dollars at the box office. Having cost $16m (£10m) to bring the production across the Atlantic, advance sales have reportedly already touched $9m.

“Rejoice, my theatregoing comrades,” Ben Brantley of the New York Times declared with dizzied excitement after Thursday’s opening performance. “The children’s revolution has arrived on these shores and it is even more glorious than were we were promised. Rush now, barricade-stormers of culture, to the Shubert Theatre.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post wrote: “Once in a blue moon, a show comes out blazing and restores your faith in Broadway. Matilda The Musical is that show.” Roald Dahl, to whose 1988 book Matilda the musical hews surprisingly tightly, might himself be allowed a posthumous blush. American critics (and Tony judges) being charmed by British imports is a familiar phenomenon. The list of recent successful transplants is rich and long, ranging from Billy Elliott and The History Boys to Warhorse and more recently One Man, Two Guvnors. But Matilda the Musical, first hatched by the Royal Shakespeare Company with words and lyrics by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, inset, might just be poised to outdo them all.

The plaudits are falling equally on the adult and juvenile members of the cast. The latter are Americans, trained in the art of speaking with a British accent and, of course, most important among them are the four actresses who will rotate playing the title role.

The task of carrying the show on opening night was given to 10-year-old Milly Shapiro. Her talent, and that of her cohorts, means that Bertie Carvel, who performs in drag as Miss Trunchbull, can’t steal the show, even if he does come close.

“It would be easy to call it the best British musical since Billy Elliot, but that, I’m afraid, would be underselling it,” was the verdict last night of Richard Zoglin of Time magazine. “You have to go back to The Lion King to find a show with as much invention, spirit and genre-redefining verve.”

All this praise for a show that might have been a risky proposition for Broadway, where ticket sales are more and more celebrity-driven – Bette Midler and Tom Hanks are recently arrived on New York’s boards – and where things foreign, even British, can get lost in translation. There has been no attempt to Americanise the dialogue in Matilda the Musical and even some of the props might baffle – for instance, a glimpse of the old TV screen test card.

Mr Brantley celebrates the art of little Matilda herself using song and storytelling to prevail over her adult adversaries and suggests that that is what the musical, in the hands of director Matthew Warchus, also achieves.

“You just have to use your imagination and think everything through carefully, so it’s all of a piece. That’s what the creators of Matilda have done,” he concludes in his review. “Such strategy should be obvious. But in the current landscape of Broadway it’s applied rarely enough to make this show feel truly revolutionary.”

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