“Matilda” – West End


Ladies and gentlemen, Matilda the Musical is a hit. A big, beautiful smash hit. The sort of intelligent, literate musical comedy that makes you want to throw your hat in the air and cheer. This is the kind of show that comes around once in a generation, and will likely run into the next one. Simultaneously touching and subversive, Roald Dahl’s story of an unloved prodigy who learns to stand up to the bullies in her life has become a beautifully realized stage property. Matilda is, to quote from its opening number, a miracle.

A child of exceptional mental faculties, Matilda has taught herself to read and has an unlimited capacity for mathematics.  Her weekly reading list could fill a college syllabus, and her imagination is limitless. But her garish, vacuous parents think she’s a freak, and her head mistress, Agatha Trunchbull, would rather Matilda went to prison for life without parole. The young child must use the extraordinary gifts of her mind to fight the bullying adults, and in that conflict librettist Dennis Kelly and composer-lyricist Tim Minchin crafted a deliriously tuneful and clever musical with astonishing élan, though I do think there should be a musical button to end the first act. (For my thoughts on the score, here’s my post on the original cast album).

Matilda is far more sophisticated than those other musical theatre children who have come before her (Oliver and Annie come readily to mind), and much to my relief – and key to the show’s triumph – is that the role is written and directed to be played like a normal child, minus all trappings of the affected, cloying child actor. The charming, takes-no-guff Sophia Kiely played the role the night I attended. (Ms. Kiely rotates with three other actresses). The role is exceptionally large, with huge monologues, musical soliloquies and exhausting choreography. Ms. Kiely was utterly superb; I was in her corner from the moment she critiqued Romeo and Juliet for having a “touch of stupidity” in her establishing song “Naughty.”

Bertie Carvel is astonishing as Miss Trunchbull. Playing the enormous bully in panto tradition, Carvel finds so many surprising shades: we see not only her villainy but the insecurities, the craving for attention and her femininity. Almost every line and gesture is laugh inducing, with a distinctive speaking voice that only adds to the overwhelming impact of his performance. His second act number “The Smell of Rebellion,” is a physically grueling showstopper, built around a rigorous exercise regimen complete with a trampoline vault. Carvel executes the number without missing a single breath. It’s a marvel, and I hope Mr. Carvel will be brought over to delight Broadway audiences next year.

As for the rest of the adults, Paul Kaye is Matilda’s father, a dimwitted mean-spirit who espouses the pros of “Telly” during interval. Josie Walker decked out in a garish wig and pink fishnets plays Matilda’s narcissistic, dance-happy mother (and is joined by Gary Watson’s deliriously sleazy Rudolpho for a tribute to vapidity, “Loud”). Lauren Ward is warm and endearing as Miss Honey, the meek teacher who, thanks to Matilda, develops a spine and learns to stand up to the oppressive Trunchbull. Peter Howe was hilarious as Matilda’s dimwitted older brother, punctuating scenes with his inane comatose utterances. Melanie La Barrie adds humanity and humor as Mrs. Phelps, the kind librarian who encourages Matilda’s love of reading and story-telling.

Peter Darling’s choreography is inventive and engaging, from the cleverness of “School Song” to the swings of the irrepressibly nostalgic “When I Grow Up” to the Spring Awakening send-up of “Revolting Children.” Matthew Warchus, who was responsible for my beloved revival of The Norman Conquests several years back, is in peak form with a staging that will rank among his best work. Rob Howell’s set, made up of wooden blocks and offbeat, oversize scrabble tiles that spill into the house is a visual delight, a perfect arena for his off-the-wall costumes.

I was so taken with the musical, I bought a ticket for the Saturday night performance. The second viewing allowed me a closer look at the nuances in the staging and choreography, as well as the details of the set. It also gave me a chance to see an entirely different cast of children, with a witty and wise Eleanor Worthington-Cox as the title character. Comparisons would futile, as both young ladies were equally effective in their distinctive interpretations. Also, Paul Kaye was out and I saw understudy Peter Howe offer his own unique, effective portrayal of Mr. Wormwood. I’m quite impressed how the production celebrates performers’ individuality. No matter which cast you see, the show will be in excellent form.

“Matilda” – Original Cast Recording


Every so often, I encounter a new score that captures my ear and imagination, and I find I myself listening to it ad infinitum. There’s something about the way the words and music hit me that I find that I compulsively want to hear the new work again and again. The last time this happened was six years ago on the release of The Light in the Piazza. There have been other scores in the years since that I have greatly admired, but none has bowled me over quite like the original cast album of MatildaI’ve had this original cast recording for a month now, featuring the show’s original Stratford players, and have been listening to it so often that all of its 17 tracks have entered my top 25 playlist on iTunes. To be frank, I haven’t been this excited/thrilled/over-the-moon about a new musical in years, and if my ear is any indicator, Matilda is going to have a long and healthy life on stage.

Matilda had its world premiere at the Royal Shakespeare Company last December, directed by Matthew Warchus, (the man responsible for the smashing revival of The Norman Conquests)Dennis Kelly has written the book with Australian comedian, singer, songwriter Tim Minchin providing both music and lyrics. The choreography is by Peter Darling. The new musical opened to rave reviews at the Courtyard Theatre, where it played a sold out limited engagement, with the Daily Telegraph declaring it the best musical since Billy Elliot. I’ll take it a step further: Matilda contains the best original British score I’ve heard in ages. Now Matilda is poised to take the West End by storm, with performances starting at the Cambridge Theatre on October 25.

The focus here is on Minchin’s music and lyrics, but I must make mention that Kelly has written a superb libretto from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel. Minchin is new to writing musicals, though he has a background in theatre, but he makes an auspicious debut with his first full musical score. What’s so wondrous about this adaptation is that Mr. Minchin not only serves the book, but captures Dahl’s tone, with its mix of dark humor and understated emotion. Unlike most shows with child protagonists (most of which admittedly tend to send me straight for the insulin), Matilda never becomes cloying or irritating.

Matilda Wormwood is extraordinary, though she doesn’t realize it. She’s 5 going on 50 and in that old soul you find a young girl with more brains, compassion and maturity than most of the adults around her. Her parents (hilariously sung by Paul Kaye and Josie Walker) are self-centered pigs who find her affinity for reading repulsive. She meets a kindred spirit, the lovely Miss Honey – the only adult to recognize Matilda’s prodigious aptitude. However, at the same time Matilda encounters her arch nemesis, the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a formidable bully who terrorizes everyone in her path.

The score is tuneful and memorable with inspired lyrics: character-based, witty and often quite clever. The opening number, “Miracle,” perfectly establishes the tone and adds the brilliant touch of Mrs. Wormwood learning of her pregnancy in the ninth month. “The School Song” is ingeniously structured around the 26 letters of the alphabet. “Bruce” is a rally song for the students as the Trunchbull punishes the portly Bruce Bogtrotter by forcing him to eat an entire chocolate cake. (One of my favorite rhymes: “Bruce/You’ll never again be subject to abuse/for your immense caboose/She’ll call a truce, Bruce/With every swallow you are tightening the noose”).

The Stratford cast utilized three actresses as Matilda: Adrianna Bertola, Josie Griffiths, and Kerry Ingram, all superb. All three are present on the cast album (though if I hadn’t known, I would never have realized it). “Naughty” shows us that Matilda is not going to go down without a fight, brilliantly using literary allusions to make her point. Throughout the musical, Matilda visits with the librarian (Melanie La Barrie) and is able to improvise stories off the top of her head. Each story is a chapter in Miss Honey’s life, though she doesn’t realize it toward the end. Musically, it climaxes with the haunting “I’m Here”. Toward the end of the second act, Matilda sings the touching “Quiet,” a soliloquy cued by a harsh diatribe from Trunchbull, in which she describes her mental escape from the unpleasantness around her.

Matilda’s mother is now obsessed with dance competitions instead of bingo, performing “Loud,” an over the top samba in which Mrs. Wormwood instructs Miss Honey on why it’s better to choose looks over books. During the interval, Mr. Wormwood makes an appearance to apologize for Matilda’s promotion of literacy before launching into the delightful “(All I Know I Learned from) Telly,” with a hilarious diatribe against famed British authors. (“Ian McEwan? Ah, I feel like spewin'”). The antidote to the hilariously appalling parents is Miss Honey, who gets the score’s more plaintive ballads, warmly sung by Lauren Ward. Michael Rouse has double duty as the kind obstetrician in the opening number “Miracle,” and as Mrs. Wormwood’s dance coach/partner Rudolpho.

One of Matilda‘s greatest treasures is British actor Bertie Carvel (Leo Frank in the London Parade) as Agatha Trunchbull, an inspired performance combining pure evil with searing wit. Miss Trunchbull gets two major numbers: “The Hammer” and the stunning “The Smell of Rebellion” in the second act, with a raucous fantasia where she imagines a world without children. In a brilliant stroke, Trunchbull is not only the headmistress, but also the Phys Ed teacher. Though she has the two solos, her presence is felt throughout much of the album. Carvel’s creation is quite possibly the greatest thing to happen to musical theatre villains since Dorothy Loudon played Miss Hannigan in the original Annie. I only hope that when the show makes its inevitable trip to Broadway, he comes with it.

The original cast album is available for digital download on iTunes or as a hard copy from the RSC website. The album contains a 28 page booklet including the lyrics. Also, when you hear the album, don’t stop listening after the finale is finished. There’s a special surprise that must be heard to be believed as it one of the most hilarious things I have ever heard on a cast album.

The Art of Co-Existence, or the Parenting Fail Revisited

Had the powers-that-be not bungled the whole idea of a “Best Replacement Tony” a few years back, I would readily nominate the new cast of God of Carnage, who started performances last night. The mere fact that I want to shower them with such accolades after merely one paid public performance should be enough evidence of how thrilling this new quartet works in Yasmina Reza’s study of good intentions gone awry.

The play has been running for a year, opening to rave reviews with a cast of stars who turned the play into a sell-out event, breaking house records and winning Tonys, etc. I saw the show last May, just before the awards hoopla ensued, and had a ridiculously good time from my seat in the rear mezzanine. (Thanks to KariG, we were in the front row). I hadn’t planned on taking in the show a second time, sometimes once can be enough.

However, when it was announced that original London star Janet McTeer would be reprising her role of Veronica (Veronique in the French-set London production), I was suddenly interested in a revisit. I’d fallen in love with this imperious talent during her acclaimed run of Mary Stuart opposite the estimable Harriet Walter last season, and am willing to hear her read the phone book. I had rumors that she was coming into the NY production, and was curious to see what her performance was like. McTeer was preferred by many friends who saw both the original London and Broadway companies. I was also intrigued at how she would fit into this Americanized version of Reza’s play. Rounding out the company was Dylan Baker as Alan, Lucy Liu as his wife Annette and Jeff Daniels (the production’s original Alan) as Veronica’s husband Michael (originally played by James Gandolfini).

Watching the play this time around, I was most taken with how playwright Reza keeps the actors (mainly Alan and Annette) in the living room for the play’s 90 minutes. This is especially more of a challenge as the play progresses, rum is served and verbal and physical assaults ensue. The couples have gathered because their sons were involved in a playground scuffle and hope to settle the incident in a civil manner, avoiding law suits and insurance claims.

McTeer dominates the stage. She is a natural presence; a living, breathing creature who unravels in front of her husband, two strangers and the entire house at the Jacobs Theatre. Her performance is simply tremendous, and I will admit a slight preference over Harden’s (whom I loved). She is so fascinating to watch in performance, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes away from her. I’ve rarely seen an actress who can be simultaneously gut-busting hilarious and tragic, and on top of it, McTeer makes it look so effortless.

Liu is making an auspicious Broadway debut as Annette; it was a delight watching her progress from an apologetic, sickly simp to a drunken Martha-in-training. Hers was the most surprising and unexpected performance, and I only hope she considers frequenting the NY theatre scene more often. She is especially memorable in her drunken monologue where she discovers her long-dormant confidence and unleashes her fury with $80 worth of imported tulips (seated in the front row, we got splashed – Kari even got a glass stone in her lap!).

Onto the men – Alan is a tailor made role for Baker: stringent, bored, clearly inconvenienced to be dealing with Michael and Veronica, as well as his own wife. Jeff Daniels was another curiosity – having played Alan so successfully, how would he transition into the other role? Quite brilliantly. It’s a testament to his versatility as an actor he can portray the two antithetical leading men in the same production without so much as blinking an eye. There is nothing in his Michael that even remotely suggests his disconnected, sardonic performance as Alan.

Putting all four together in that savagely blood red living room, it becomes something of a volatile game of doubles tennis. The two couples are innately juxtaposed, but things get interesting as allegiances shift among the quartet, exposing unpleasant truths about both marriages – which only provides more ammunition for the onslaught. Nothing amuses me more than watching characters shattering false illusions about themselves while completely falling from grace (and it is Veronica who has the farthest to fall, as she grasps onto notions of morality and humanity dismissed by the other three).

The play is still fiercely funny from start to finish, much of that credit is due to Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus (who hit two home runs last season with Carnage and, more impressively, the revival of The Norman Conquests). If you haven’t seen the play, yet, by all means, run! If you have, rest assured that the production is in excellent hands and worthy of a second glance.

He Came, He Saw, and Oh, How He Conquered

“I only wanted to make you happy!”

I kept spouting that line at Roxie all day Sunday in my best (worst) English accent. She didn’t really know why I was saying it, but all the same she put up with my antics as usual. For those unfamiliar with The Norman Conquests, or more specifically with Round and Round the Garden, that is the final line of the entire trilogy of plays delivered by Norman at the end of a most hilariously heartbreaking weekend experienced by Norman and his rowdy gang of in-laws.

Truth of the matter is, while Norman drove his family to the brink of exasperation, he and his dysfunctional family (plus one veterinarian) charmed the hell out of audiences in both London and New York. Going back to see it one more time only cemented my initial reaction. If you had the opportunity to spend time at the Circle in the Square this past spring, you know what I mean. If you didn’t, I must say you should be kicking yourself right now for missing the best production of the 2008-09 season.

All six actors were exemplary. I was asked the question “Which is your least favorite?” And there was no way I could begin to answer it. Each performer brought so much to their characters, grounding then with brutal honesty that heightened the emotional stakes. The truer the performance, the more hilariously painful it was.

Ben Miles’ sad sack Tom was just as slow on the uptake, Paul Ritter, whose ass was the subject of the ITBA acceptance speech was as exasperated with his wife as ever, dropping acerbic quips like hydrogen bombs. Amelia Bullmore’s Ruth was more fascinating to watch as she patiently found herself acting more as a mother to Norman rather than a wife. Jessica Hynes is the caregiver of the unseen matriarch, frustrated in her loneliness and seeking an escape even if it is in her brother in law. Amanda Root turned the waspish harridan into an art form with the bossy, high-strung Sarah. Finally, Stephen Mangan was just all childlike innocence, unhappiness and unbridled sexuality rolled into one larger than life star turn. Though Tony voters decided that Roger Robinson gave the performance of the season in Joe Turner, Mr. Mangan, who should have won, gave a performance for the ages.

Roxie and I met up with Kari, who was also returning for a return visit and together we enjoyed our day immersed in the saga of a weekend holiday turned on its ear. The three plays are presented in their suggested order, starting in the morning at 11:30 with Table Manners, taking place in the dining room of the house. The second, Living Together moves the action into the living room (with the infamous rug…). And the final play in the trilogy is Round and Round the Garden that moves the action outdoors. By the time all is said and done that is 7 1/2 hours of theatre over an 11 hour spread.

It’s been said that any one of the plays can be seen on its own, or any combination in any order. However, I must stress that while the a la carte option sounds like a good idea, the full course trilogy marathon days truly allow for an audience member to experience the full exhilaration of the works. Table Manners introduced the characters and provides ample exposition for the remainder. It also doesn’t hurt that the characters in the first scene talks about the unseen Norman at such length, you cannot wait for him to enter. Living Together is still riotous, but provides something of a breather for the audience. In the middle play, there is more attention paid to the underlying problems souring the marriages, adding to the dramatic weight anchoring the characters in this situation. The last play fills in the final gaps, and is a raucous free for all with some of the funniest and most farcical moments of the series, as well as having the first and last scenes of the trilogy’s chronology.

Being the last marathon I had anticipated the entire day being sold out. However, Table Manners was not. Then Kari wisely reminded me it was a Sunday morning in New York City, most people are at church or downing their complimentary mimosas at brunch. Fortunately Roxie and I were seated with some marathon folks, so we had some friendly chatter with them. However there was a couple to our right who I’m almost convinced were apparitions. They didn’t crack a smile or show any response at all during the three plays, not once. After each play, they would mysteriously vanish without a trace. I’m surprised they would stick around for the entire day if they were that disinterested. Fortunately it did nothing to detract us from enjoying the actors and production onstage.

The afternoon show was almost sold out and I’m guessing a lot of seats were filled courtesy of TKTS. Part of the marathon experience that makes it so ideal is that you are already familiar with the characters, their quirks, their faults, etc. If you’ve just seen the earlier play, bits and pieces will be funnier to you than Joe and Jane Smith showing up for the first time. The rows behind us were such people, one even commenting “This must be something to do with the first one.” Folks, they were not wrong.

The final play, also the final performance of this entire production, had a house brimming with excitement and energy. Before the start of the play I realized that there was not a single empty seat to be had, and it was a standing room only crowd. This was a performance filled with friends making another trip to that house somewhere near East Grinstead to cheer on superlative acting and direction. Each actor received extensive entrance applause on his or her entrance. And then we were off on one final side-splitting, melancholic ride.

The curtain call was met with an instant standing ovation, as we cheered on this vibrant ensemble brought together in pure alchemy by the theatre gods and under the direction of genius Matthew Warchus (whose Tony should have been for this not God of Carnage). The standbys emerged from the wings to present each with flowers and a stuffed cat (I didn’t see if there were bandages on the paws). The actors took an immediate second call as is usually the case after the marathon. The house lights came up, and while some audience members got up and left enough of us stayed firmly planted at our seats applauding. The ovation surged louder than before prompting a third and final call for the actors. Since it was performed in the round, the actors bowed in each direction of the audience. Whenever they turned to another section, the cheers were especially stronger. I am rarely one to be vocal at a curtain call, but I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I called “Bravo!”

I still cannot pick if one play is better than the rest as a stand alone. For me, I still think of the entire trilogy as a mammoth three act play and best experienced as such. You could get away with seeing one, but if you enjoyed it you wouldn’t want to just stop there. The entire trilogy weaves together a tapestry of character and pathos in such a clever and unique way that seeing it all in one sitting is the definitive audience experience.

Alan Ayckbourn’s preface in the published version of the script talks about how the plays came to be written over the course of a single week (!) and the distinctive tones of each. He ends the foreward with this, which is pretty much in line with what I feel about the Norman trilogy:

“This crosswise way of writing them proved very satisfactory though of course made it quite impossible for me, even today, to really judge their effectiveness downwards or indeed to assess, beyond certain limits, whether the plays stand up independently. This is not, I’m afraid, a problem that one single individual can resolve. As soon as one play is read or seen, the other two plays are automatically coloured and affected by the foreknowledge gained from the first – which may sound like some sort of warning, though, in this case I hope, a little knowledge is a pleasurable thing.”

Afterwards we met up with new friends Eden, Lauren and Landice outside as I chose to stage door a production for the first time in over three years. The actors were lovely, gracious, witty and warm (and exhausted) as they signed and posed for pictures with those few of us who waited. It felt nice to be greeted with warm recognition by the three leading ladies, with whom I shared a most memorable elevator ride only a couple weeks before. I don’t normally give in to the stage door, but I had to tell them one last time how much I appreciated the performances and the production. Plus, I wanted to wish them well as all six were flying back home to England the following morning.

Norman only wanted to make us happy, and he did. Strike that. They all did.

"The Norman Conquests" says goodbye

I wasn’t the only one who was there the other day to spend time with the cast of The Norman Conquests. Broadway.tv talked to all six about their experience.

This weekend is your final opportunity to see a most brilliant ensemble in one of the most thrilling productions Broadway has seen in quite some time. I’ll be at the Sunday trilogy marathon to bid my six favorites a fond farewell. I hope to see you there.

The Art of Co-Existence, or the Parenting Fail

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And it’s never been more hilarious than it is here in God of Carnage, the most exhilarating new play I’ve seen in New York since August: Osage County.

When Veronica and Michael invite Alan and Annette over to their moderately upscale Brooklyn apartment on an ordinary weekday afternoon to discuss a playground altercation between their sons, good intent is first and foremost. The situation is civil, yet strained as they seek out to smooth out the rough edges: Alan and Annette’s (Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis) son hit Veronica and Michael’s (Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini) son in the mouth with a stick, knocking out two incisors and causing some serious damage. Veronica’s insistence that Alan and Annette’s son make a meaningful apology to their son starts to unravel the forced placidity. Tensions mount and eventually explode in ways both metaphoric and literal.

God of Carnage is one of those incisive, cutting plays that gleefully exposes the narrow line between the civilized and primitive in human nature . The play by Yazmina Reza (translated into English by Christopher Hampton, her frequent English language collaborator) had a highly successful Olivier-winning run in London’s West End starring Ralph Fiennes and Janet McTeer, directed by Matthew Warchus. That production has transferred to New York for a limited engagement, relocating the setting to the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn and Americanizing the text.

The four cast members, all of whom were nominated for Tonys (all as leads, I might add) carry the evening off with remarkably astute characterizations. Jeff Daniels is amusingly droll as a work-obsessed attorney whose main concerns lie with a major pharmaceutical case than with his family. Hope Davis is hilarious as his anxiety ridden wife whose nausea coincides with her husbands convenient habit of answering all cell phone calls. James Gandolfini plays the other father, more blue collar sort of man’s man who also happens to have a mortal fear of hamsters. The evening; however, belongs to Marcia Gay Harden, the mild-mannered, cultured, liberal “concerned parent” and author (she’s written a book on Darfur) who melts down to primordial chaos by the play’s end. At the play’s end the living room is a shambles, as are the individuals onstage who have had their hypocrisies tossed at them (some literally). As arguments and accusations are tossed, allegiances shift with the fluidity of a roving cumulus cloud. One minute it’s couple vs. couple, the next, the women vs. the men and on occasion three gang up on one. With each polemic shift, the play’s characters and their situations only become more complex, and as a result more hilarious.

It’s hard not to think of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while watching a four-hander about bickering couples. However, this play is half the length and the social lubricants only make their grand debut about halfway through the play. Warchus, who directed last year’s first-rate revival of a third-rate farce (Boeing Boeing), once again manages to bring out unexpected humor and nuance in situations that are routinely formulaic. The characters become childlike, throwing tantrums, hurling insults, dropping truth bombs and causing more harm than the instigating incident on the playground. (Warchus also directed the limited engagement revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, playing in rep at the Circle in the Square… we’ll have more on that one in the near future). The play gets off to a strained start, and rightly so: it’s awkward to watch a person trying to parent another person’s children. The tensions build and build, and about twenty minutes into the play, Hope Davis vomits all over Harden’s priceless art books pushing the characters and the audience past the point of no return. At this point all bets are off, and to paraphrase Margo Channing, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy afternoon.”

The production has wasted no time in touting its nominations, with signs already erected on the marquee. One of them reads: “Nominated for 6 Tonys, including the ENTIRE CAST.” All four actors have earned the nominations and deservedly so, though I have to say Harden as Veronica is the standout among a cast of winners (and at this point is my pick for the Tony award on June 7). I also want to add: this is the first time any of the four actors have appeared on Broadway in over a decade, and I’ve got to say, it’s good to have them back.

The show is currently running in a limited engagement at the Jacobs Theatre until August 2. Run, don’t walk.