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David Finkle

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First Nighter: London's Matilda as Entertaining a Musical as They Come

Posted: 02/23/2012 10:12 am

You read it here first: Although producers are currently wrangling over who will prevail in the campaign to bring Matilda -- the hit British musical at the Cambridge -- to Broadway, whoever prevails and whenever the transfer happens, it'll win the best musical Tony for whatever season in which it bows.

Yes, the adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's story of the same name -- about a young girl who loves to read but is called a hopeless bookworm by her low-IQ parents -- is that good. Good, nothing. It's delicious, delightful and delirious from first to last and has the power to affect adults as thoroughly as it does children. That'll extend to children and adults everywhere, though there's some silly talk circulating about the tuner's being "too British" to travel. Phooey on that.

Not unlike other stories of its type, Matilda depicts many of the grown-ups -- if that's what they can be called -- as close to irredeemably evil, but it also has plenty to say about misbehaving kids, as two of the songs, "The Smell of Rebellion," and the final "Revolting Children" attest.

From beginning to end, Matilda is so chockfull of surprises and a polished and eager-to-be-foolish cast that this dazzled adult -- tempted to abandon his critical faculties from the kick-off ditty about youngsters constantly told what miracles they are by their elders -- doesn't know where to begin the praise-phrases. The hilarious but also deeply smart Dennis Kelly libretto, who's London-based, and Australian Tim Minchin's score -- which may not include break-out songs but which works like a charm within the show's framework -- is as appropriate a place as any.

As if constructing a voluminous cotton-candy cone, Kelly and Minchin spin the story of put-upon, persevering Matilda (the superbly matter-of-fact Eleanor Worthington Cox at the performance I saw) as she contends with dance-crazed, exploding-blond-wig mom Mrs. Wormwood (Josie Walker), brains-challenged, shady-dealing dad Mr. Wormwood (Paul Kaye) and Miss Trunchbutt (Bertie Carvel committing one of the best cross-dressing turns since Alastair Sim let loose in the St. Trinian's flicks). She's the tyrannical school headmistress averse to any sort of actual learning.

As Matilda contends with these unrelenting adversaries but in the end proves too resilient for them -- with the help of her sweetly understanding teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward) -- the book writers also have no end of fun with the other preteens acting up whenever they have the opportunity, which is constant. Chief among them is fat kid Bruce (Jake Bailey on my night), who shows his mettle in a cake-eating contest so beautifully rigged its conclusion instantly reaps an ovation.

Nothing misfires as Minchin's tunes whiz by, either. Highlights abound, the best of which is an imaginatively choreographed number with swings, "When I Grow Up," and the irresistibly gymnastic movement supplied for "The Smell of Rebellion." Peter Darling -- who also handled a five-footers-and-under contingent in Billy Elliot -- stages these work-outs, as he does all the dancing, including a laugh-packed mock tango. His patterns throughout can't be all that easy to negotiate, since he incorporates the choppy, propulsive gesticulations recognizably common to the Ritalin crowd. All participants are drilled like adorable automatons, and it's a hoot to watch.

Rob Howell's Matilda set is framed by seemingly innumerable out-sized Scrabble tiles -- some of them spelling words like "tragedy" and "silence" -- and features tall, shifting book shelves. His costumes boast garish rainbow colors. Furthermore, enough can't be said about Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Simon Baker's sound.

Last, add the enterprise to director Matthew Warchus's list of productions both artistically and commercially triumphant. Does he ever miss? Doesn't seem that way. He certainly doesn't with this humungous winner.

A final word: At a time and in a culture when dumbing-down is the dismaying order of the day, Matilda is unabashedly about smartening up and the rewards doing so brings. It's a lesson in living that could come across as preachy but not as presented here with all the inspiration the best stage craftsmen and craftswomen can muster.

"And the 2012 Tony for Best Musical goes to... whatdya think?"