I don't know how my fellow critics feel about this, but I find it much harder to write a rave than to write a pan. I guess that says something about me as a person, but I think it's also sort of endemic to the critical process, at least for me. When things are going wrong with a show, I have a much firmer sense of what to write about: two-dimensional characterizations, inconsistent plot developments, poorly integrated songs, etc.
In my criticism course at the Boston Conservatory, I usually pass out my review of The Book of Mormon as an example of what not to do in a review. I basically talk about the show without really ever talking about the show. No specifics, very little support. On the plus side, you can definitely tell how I felt about the show: it was great, and you should go. But that's more along the lines of consumer advocacy than genuine criticism.
I get the feeling that I'm going to have the same problem with Matilda, a blissful joy of a show that recently opened on Broadway after a smashing London debut, under the auspices of The Royal Shakespeare Company. The show isn't perfect, as I'll enumerate below. But it's a tremendously fun and engaging ride that has stronger stagecraft, finer performances, a bigger heart, and heartier laughs than any other musical that opened on Broadway this season.
I actually saw Matilda twice, once during previews and once shortly after it opened. During my first visit, I was sort of unmoved by the first act, although the second act really turned me around. I think my lack of response to the first half may have been partly because I couldn't understand the lyrics to many of the songs, and also because my seat on the far right of the orchestra was situated such that I couldn't see a lot of what was happening upstage center, where quite a few significant events take place.
The lyrics remain a liability for the show: it's rather difficult to understand them fresh in the theater, and I had listened to the London cast recording quite a few times prior to my first visit. Although composer/lyricist Tim Minchin is relatively new to musical theater, I've been aware of his comedy work for years. He's quirky, clever, and hilarious is his numerous comedy recordings. But his lyrics for Matilda are often too dense for immediate comprehension, particularly in the opening number, "Miracle," and the act one closer, "Bruce." Both times I saw the show, the only words I could figure out during the latter song were "Bruce" and its numerous rhyming words. Minchin also exhibits unfortunate tendencies toward errant scansion ("go fi-GURE") and slant rhyme ("miracle/umbilical"). And those two examples are just from the opening number.
And yet, the show is a joy. The same things that would turn me against a different show I was able to overlook, especially during my second visit to the show. I still couldn't understand all the lyrics, and the slant rhyme and poor scansion certainly hadn't disappeared. But I found myself transported by the story (Dennis Kelly has written the book, based on the classic novel by Roald Dahl), as well as the smart and sensitive direction from Matthew Warchus (acquitting himself more than adequately after the abomination that was Ghost). Adding to the sheer bliss of the production are Peter Darling's sharp, angular choreography, as well as the stunning scenic and costume design by Rob Howell.
I get the feeling that Matilda would still be a delight even without the present cast, and yet they added immeasurably to my enjoyment. As you may know, there are four different girls who share the title role. (Raising the valid speculation that the quartet will indeed receive a joint Tony nomination, a la Billy Elliot. Saints preserve us.)
As chance would have it, I saw Milly Shapiro as Matilda both times. At first, Shapiro would seem an unlikely Broadway waif, with a face that seems virtually expressionless during performance. (That's her on the far right in the photo.) And yet, her stoic countenance really seemed to work perfectly for the part: neglected and put upon yet endlessly resourceful. She's not your typical uber-animated little belter. Her otherwise passive expression made the moments when Matilda suddenly responds to the kindness of her schoolteacher all the more heartrending. When I saw that I was going to see Milly again during my second visit, I was actually pretty excited. There's something thoroughly real and disarming about this talented little girl.
Of course, the performer who's getting the most attention, and deservedly so, is Bertie Carvel executing a deliciously malevolent turn as Miss Trunchbull, the evil school-mistress. Carvel more than lives up to the expectation that comes with the Olivier Award he received for the same role in the London production. He plays the kind of role that you, by design, instantly hate, and yet you can't wait for Carvel to come back on-stage because he's just so delightfully nuanced and idiosyncratic.
The supporting cast are no less strong, including the heartwarming Lauren Ward as Miss Honey, Matilda's sympathetic, and pathetic, school teacher. Giving performances that (almost) rival Carvel's for sheer scene-stealing and scenery-chewing vivacity are Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita as Matilda's callous, obnoxious parents. Because, here's the thing: Matilda is so full of joy that even the villains are oozing with and old-fashioned kind of showbiz charm.
It will be interesting to see whether Matilda can amass the kind of momentum that The Book of Mormon has, or whether the initial fervor will peter out, as it did for Billy Elliot. Clearly, I'm hoping it's closer to the former than to the latter.