THE BLOG
04/12/2013 11:57 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

First Nighter: Matilda Teaches Broadway a Thing or Two

When I reviewed Matilda from London in February 2012, I began my over-the-moon remarks this way: "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."

Okay, Matilda is now at the Shubert, as produced by original commissioning outfit, The Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Dodgers -- with Playbill title-page thanks to abundant money-raising parties. And guess what. This time I'm over the moon -- even higher and on trajectory to Pluto and beyond. The reason is that the terrific show is even better here than it was/is there.

I'll explain how that's occurred only after I quote more extensively from my initial coverage to underline the tuner's superiority. "Yes," I went on to rave, "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 chockful 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, libretto from Dennis Kelly, 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 as she contends with dance-crazed, exploding-blond-wig mom Mrs. Wormwood, brains-challenged, shady-dealing dad Mr. Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull. She's the tyrannical school headmistress averse to any sort of actual learning.

While 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, 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 bookshelves. 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.

Okay, now how do you raise those greatly elevated levels? Not by a better cast, although this one is every spoken word, every sung note and every danced step as good as the London ensemble I saw. Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull repeats his performance, committing one of the best cross-dressing turns since Alastair Sim let loose in the St. Trinian's flicks. Lauren Ward nicely repeats her turn as unsticky sweet Miss Holly and with Ted Wilson is as hilarious as big-voiced Eric as he was.

The rest of the cast members are stateside replacements who have, for only one outstanding accomplishment, gotten accents down as if they were all born across the sea. The enchanting Matilda I saw was Milly Shapiro, whose rendition of the song "Quiet" is especially poignant. (The Matilda role is shared by Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence and Bailey Ryon, and most of the to-die-for children's roles are also played by four young performers.)

Getting in the spirit of things and making them more spirited are Gabriel Ebert as cruelly simple Mr. Wormwood, Lesli Margherita as equally cruelly simple Mrs. Wormwood and Taylor Trensch as television-watching teen Michael Wormwood. Mrs. Wormwood's dancing partner Rudolpho (Phillip Spaeth), who apparently doesn't have a bone in his sinuous body, is more hot stuff.

But if the cast members -- superb as they are in Howell's fine and fancy costumes -- don't account for the Matilda bar-hiking, what does? It's the Shubert Theater. The configuration of its orchestra seating arrangement has encouraged Warchus to send his players into the audience for several additional delicious, delightful and delirious surprises.

And now back to my previous review where I closed by saying, "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 2013 Tony for Best Musical goes to...whatdya think?"