REVIEW: Matilda the Musical

I guess I’ve been in social services too long but I just don’t find child abuse all that funny.  And MATILDA THE MUSICAL is full of abusive adults calling children names, throwing them out of windows, forcing them to eat til they are sick, and other despicable acts.  All in the name of villainous comedy.

My sense of humor is well-developed, I think.  Last week I saw one of the darkest comedies ever and enjoyed it so much I went back on Sunday afternoon.  But those were adults being awful to one another; this show features children being thrown to the floor, spun around by their pigtails, and perhaps most devastating – called names and ridiculed for being born a girl instead of a boy.

Roald Dahl, the author of the book this musical is inspired by, is known for his dark look at childhood.  And while I’ve not read this one, I was always fond of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. And I remember enjoying a series of books as a kid about a skyscraper school where the adults were all mean or stupid. There are lots of stories like that.  But somehow on the page it just never seemed as horrible as watching these themes unfold on stage.

Maybe its the fact that this production views the world from an adult perspective, no matter how much focus is placed on the child actors.  For one, they simply aren’t capable of carrying a live stage show, no matter how talented they might be.  So by default we’re relying on the grown-ups to carry the story.  And in my opinion its a wretched one.

Matilda is an unwanted child, born to unlikable imbeciles, who make fun of her for reading and being smart and not watching TV. And for breathing.  They hate her. Instead she finds love in the form of books and her librarian, to whom she tells fanciful stories of love and hope.  But don’t forget that she pulls mean-spirited pranks on her father, which I understand, but made it a bit hard to root for her.

She goes to a prison-like school with an over the top tyrant named Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy) and a bunch of other kids who all get to act cute and suffer together from the abuse of their principal.  There Matilda meets Miss Honey (CCM Graduate Jennifer Bowles), a loving, kind teacher.  She’s really the only bright spot in the story – and the production.

As the story progresses it goes from a strange Lemony Snicket-Married With Children hybrid and turns into little Orphan Annie meets Carrie.  Roald Dahl writes some dark stuff, y’all, but at least it has a happy ending.  I guess.

Perhaps fans of the story will see it differently but for me it’s not something I ever plan to see again.

MATILDA THE MUSICAL runs through April 16th at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in downtown Cincinnati.  Tickets and more information can be found here.