‘Matilda the Musical’ speaks to children—and the young at heart

Matilda the Musical plays at the Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall through March 19.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Jacob Coakley

Matilda the Musical is a story about a young girl who learns to sing with help from a kindly tutor and escapes a fascist regime. … Nope, not quite right. It’s the story of a telekinetic girl who rebels against an oppressive family. … Nope, not that either. Matilda is actually a meta-textual musical that calls into question the very form of its telling and affirms some deeper truths about the power of stories and community. Well, yes, but …

The truth of the matter is that Matilda is kind of like The Sound of Music, Carrie the Musical, and Into the Woods—but it’s also it’s own unique story, too, a musical that is both straight ahead and meta, breaking the fourth wall to tell a story about wish fulfillment and standing up for oneself, with enough of Roald Dahl’s original weirdness to keep things lively.

Adapted from Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel Matilda, the musical is jangly and sly, with infectious tunes and lyrics that bite. The opening number is a paean to everyone’s special snowflake child—yet even before the acid of that can dry, Matilda proclaims that her parents don’t think she’s special at all and, in fact, continually berate her. It’s both a slick reversal of smugness over the coddling of children today and a rebuke against treating children with anything but respect for who they are.

This tartness is leavened throughout with the general absurdity of certain situations—throwing a girl out of a classroom by swinging her around by her pigtails, for example—and some genuinely heartwarming songs from Dennis Kelly (who wrote the Tony Award-winning book) and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics. “When I Grow up” manages to be nonjudgmental about the children’s somewhat fractured dreams (being old enough to watch as many cartoons as you like) yet crystal clear in how these stories about adulthood shouldn’t turn into acceptance of the wrongs that happen in the world.

In the end, Matilda isn’t just about children, or for children. (Though it is certainly, both of those things.) It’s also pretty perfect for those who like to retain a little bit of childhood optimism and wonder at the world. And that’s welcome no matter what story it is.

Matilda the Musical March 14-19, 7:30 p.m.; March 18-19, 2 p.m.; $29-$127. Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, 702-749-2000.

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