Much as you might like to forget about politics for an evening, that’s hard to do when you’re watching a famously well-studied female icon, recognizable by her first name alone, baselessly berated by a wild-haired shyster who prides himself on anti-intellectualism.
Matilda the Musical is a Tony-winning show that’s just arrived at the Orpheum Theatre, giving local audiences a first chance to see why it enraptured Broadway crowds when it premiered there in 2013 after an acclaimed U.K. debut a few years earlier. Adapted from the 1988 Roald Dahl novel that was also the basis for a cult-classic 1996 film, the Matilda musical plays down the title character’s telekinetic abilities — though the magic is still present, notably in a climactic bit of stagecraft that will have you wondering how they did that.
Instead, composer Tim Minchin’s songs (he also wrote the lyrics, with book by Dennis Kelly) illuminate the inner world of a lonely but resolute little girl who generously turns her energies to the good of others. It’s an often dark story — this is Roald Dahl, after all — but the production has an inspiring theme, and it’s a great show for kids who are old enough to independently read and enjoy the book.
The demanding but dryly understated title role rotates among three young performers. On Wednesday night, the heroine was played by Gabrielle Gutierrez, who’s been a Matilda for a good chunk of her 11-year-old life and demonstrates the rock-solid confidence that fact would lead you to expect. Her antagonist Miss Trunchbull is played by Dan Chameroy, who has the audience in stitches — although it would have been nice to see the show’s juiciest role go to an actual woman, rather than to a gratuitously cross-dressing man.
Matilda’s onstage for almost the entire show, yet Minchin and Kelly make room for highly entertaining antics involving her schoolmates — notably Gabby Beredo as Matilda’s self-declared best friend Lavender, and St. Paul’s own Soren Miller as Bruce, who gets to disco and dab after overcoming some gothic persecution from Miss Trunchbull. Jennifer Bowles plays the kids’ teacher, Miss Honey, with endearingly humble warmth.
About that wild-haired shyster: he’s Matilda’s father, Mr. Wormwood. Matt Harrington has the show’s funniest bits of physical acting, reacting to indignities visited upon him by his resentful daughter — for example, trying to get out of a hat that’s been glued to his head. Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) is a competitive dancer whose partner Rudolpho (Stephen Diaz) drops into the splits with vainglorious aplomb.
Director Matthew Warchus trusts the charisma of his cast, rather than high-tech bells and whistles, to carry the show. Peter Darling’s choreography is key, and it’s not complex but it’s certainly dynamic: during “When I Grow Up” the characters soar on swings, and when it’s time for gymnastics, a parade of children tumble over a beam (and each other) with amusing haplessness.
From beginning to end, Matilda the Musical lives up to the hype: it’s one of the most consistently captivating shows to hit Hennepin in years, with a warm lift and a sweet sense of whimsy. One of the few issues with this touring production is the amplified singing, which sometimes sounds thin and makes it difficult to discern Minchin’s acrobatic lyrics. Otherwise, this Matilda finds its footing with flair.