Coming soon to a theater near you: Matilda, courtesy of the national touring company that I recently caught in St. Louis at the unbelievably beautiful Fox Theatre.
The tale of a remarkable girl who’s reading A Tale of Two Cities at five was first seen in just as many cities: London, where it’s about to celebrate its fourth anniversary, and New York, where it’s in its third year. Now Matilda can be enjoyed in many more cities, thanks to this touring company.
Oh, the set designed for traveling doesn’t offer Scrabble tiles as defined as we see in the West End or Broadway; they’re merely printed onto flats. But that’s the only thing that’s flat about this version of the 2103 Drama Desk-winning Best Musical.
When Matilda opened on Broadway, four young actresses played the title role in repertory. I saw two – never mind which – and found them far, far below the level of Cleo Demetriou, the wonder that I had seen in London. The tour has three Matildas, and Gabby Gutierrez – the one that I was lucky enough to catch – is Demetriou’s startling equal. Matthew Warchus, who’s directed all three companies, must have danced gleefully around the audition room for twenty straight minutes after he’d seen Gutierrez.
Matilda Wormwood loves to read but has been born into a family that doesn’t love her. The ignorance of centuries shows in each member’s face and in virtually every word uttered. If Elphaba initially had her doubts about blondes, what would she think of Matilda’s mother’s all- too-obvious dye job? Cassie Silva gets her laugh by being completely sincere when having Mrs. Wormwood say “Looks are more important than books.”
Quinn Mattfeld is Mr. Wormwood, the role that won Gabriel Ebert a Best Featured Musical Actor Tony. Mattfield is just as adept when taking great umbrage when he sees Matilda reading. “You – bookworm!” he snarls, with the same harsh judgment he’d use as if he were saying, “You f***ing idiot!” Yes, parents do get threatened by the idea that their kids might be better than they, don’t they?
They ground Matilda — but they can’t grind her up. Gutierrez shows Matilda’s calm ability to ignore her utterly stupid parents, although she does have one Achilles’ heel. Her father simply won’t accept that his wife gave birth to anything as low as a daughter, so he insists over and over again that Matilda is a boy. “I’m a girl!” Gutierrez says to sharply correct while also including a cry of pain in the protest.
Matilda’s frustration makes her storm into the local library and demand to know, “Where’s the ‘Revenge’ section?” Two wrongs don’t make a right, but you’d never know it from this show, which has Matilda twice sabotaging her father. (Well, maybe it’s genetic; she doesn’t come from a noble lineage, after all.) Gutierrez shrewdly keeps any hint of malice off her face when she matter-of-factly dispenses her own brand of frontier justice. Matilda even has a little Carrie in her, although her musical is substantially better.
While at the library, Matilda’s creates a hair-raising story of her own. Gutierrez shows great timing in dolefully telling the tale to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. It seemingly ends in a grisly death, but – oh, no – there’s more. Guiterrez’s eyes narrow before she delivers the kicker: “And then things got worse.” Ora Jones amuses as Mrs. Phelps when she screams in fear when the story becomes all-too- scary – before collecting herself and immediately urging the kid to “Go on!” — the way we all do.
But thank God for librarians and teachers and librarians, no? Soon after Miss Honey arrives in her classroom and meets Matilda, she realizes the girl is one in a centillion. Jennifer Blood ably contains her astonishment at Matilda’s mastery of math without letting the other kids feel inferior because they can’t put two and two together.
Miss Honey has troubles of her own, as she solidly sings in “Pathetic.” We see her full-blown fear in the way she panders to Miss Trunchbull, the round-shouldered, heavy-set harridan headmistress. You’d think that Matilda might be the one 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 no, it’s Miss Honey.
Miss Trunchbull is portrayed with snarling malevolence in the British panto tradition by Bryce Ryness. Annie’s Miss Hannigan is Maria von Trapp compared to this shrew. Ryness sprays the requisite paranoid fear and power as she insists that “Children are maggots. To teach the child, we must first break the child.”
Principals and parents can do kids in – but not Matilda. The appropriately short Gutierrez stands tall when castigating Miss Trunchbull with a solid “That’s not right!” and “You big fat bully!” This actress knows that the show is called Matilda and not Trunchbull. She’s the main event, and she’ll earn her center stage spot. When you assume that Gutierrez can’t astonish you any more than she has, she conquers “Quiet,” a patter song that makes “Getting Married Today” seem as slow as rush-hour traffic.
The show takes time to have Matilda break our hearts, too. After Mrs. Phelps makes an erroneous assumption about the girl’s life at home — “It must be wonderful for a child to be so wanted” — Gutierrez bravely but robotically says “Yes, it is, goodbye, Mrs. Phelps.”
And just as it seems that Matilda will shut herself off emotionally for the rest of her life, in the next scene — when Miss Honey says she’ll bring her more books to read — Matilda lets her inhibitions go. Out of gratitude, passion and, yes, love, she hugs Miss Honey tight. That’s one of two truly tear-inducing moments.
The show does make the same mistake that Camelot made. That show’s Act One ended with a speech that was mighty powerful, yes, but one that should have been transformed into song. (It’s a musical, remember?) Similarly, why are Matilda’s stories spoken rather than sung?
Perhaps librettist Dennis Kelly and songwriter Tim Minchin worried that they’d overtax any lass who landed the title role. Good point. But while I can’t speak for alternate Matildas Mia Sinclair Jenness or Mabel Tyler, Gutierrez suggests that she could have handled a few more songs.
Along the way, Matilda offers some social commentary that no one should miss. When Miss Honey takes Matilda home, the lass takes one look around the modest surroundings and asks “Are you poor? Don’t they pay teachers much?” The audience emits a bitter laugh, but it should do more. Must we all be Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood and not appreciate the value of education? In these times when ignorance is the norm, can anything be done to return to a world that appreciates knowledge? In the meantime, at least we get to appreciate Matilda.