Do you remember re-reading a beloved childhood story and finding yourself shocked at the twisted ongoings that you once found so normal? The evil stepmother enslaves an unsuspecting Cinderella, a cannibalistic witch threatens Hansel and Gretel, and what does Alice find down the rabbit hole but anthropomorphic creatures that feel more like home than the world from which she comes? This uncanny experience, to say the least, is being replicated for audiences of all ages at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, where the US National Tour of Matilda the Musical opened last Friday.
This smash-hit stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book truly exploits all parts of the metaphorical spectrum of lightheartedness, featuring both moments of unencumbered hilarity and instances of disturbing abuse. Little Matilda, the intelligent daughter of a self-indulgent amateur ballroom dancer and a crook of a father, is sent to Crunchem Hall Primary School, where she must learn to deal with the unfair ways Miss Tunchbull (a fantastic Bryce Ryness,) the principal, runs the school. She is, however, fortunate enough to meet Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood,) a teacher with a dark past of her own who takes it upon herself to defend and protect Matilda.
For those of us who were raised abroad, where being given the cane for not behaving in class was not completely off the table, the show’s greatest triumph is its preservation of Matilda’s unenviable predicament. Roald Dahl’s exquisite darkness lies dormant in every creative punishment Miss Trunchbull can come up with; and it successfully escapes its dormancy in a moment of acute recognition as we realize Matilda needs (spoiler alert) superhuman powers to understand she is the victim of child abuse and invent for herself a story when she isn’t one.
Changing the course of one’s story is Matilda’s leitmotif, and it appears in the show’s anthem, “Naughty.” Now is a pivotal time for this musical, this motif, and, specifically, this song to arrive in San Francisco. One hopes that tech titans make good on their recent pledges to support the arts and hop in their Priuses, C++ on their minds and a song in their hearts and see this show and finally understand that Silicon Valley did not invent storytelling; that artists and writers of all kinds have been telling stories ever since we’ve had the ability to speak and listen.
With touring productions, there is always the fear that the show won’t fit into the space and that the tour cast might be in some way subpar to the one on Broadway. Worry not, however; the otherwise temperamental stage of The Orpheum (if you saw the tour of Pippin, you’ll know what I’m talking about) has been utilized to its reasonable limits, with numbers like “When I Grow Up” protruding beyond the proscenium as much as the space allows. Although I do not know what Matilda looks like on Broadway, this tour is in no way an imitation; but rather, an original and artful interpretation of a fascinating story by actors with a certain degree of freedom and depth of skill to be authentic.
Among the cast, Bryce Ryness as Miss Trunchbull is a terrific standout, acting for the nosebleeds while fascinating the orchestra seats with every wayward eyebrow twitch. The legendary pigtails scene (you might remember it from the movie) seems completely original under his his masterful command. Perhaps even more spectacular is his rescue of “The Smell of Rebellion,” an infinitely annoying and overly verbose weak point in the otherwise impressive score. Mr. Ryness brings his impressive theatrical background (HAIR, First Date, Leap of Faith) to the Orpheum stage and leads the production with a talent-infused villainy, making even the most reviled of characters flirt with our curiosity.
Other standouts in this production include the graceful Jennifer Blood, who takes a character with a strange, unbelievable history and manages to make her relatable; and Mabel Tyler as one of three Matildas–the other two are Mia Sinclair Jenness and Gabby Gutierrez, who is the first Filipino ever to play the role. The young Ms. Tyler has impeccable comedic timing, yet her triumph lies in the introvert’s anthem, “Quiet.” In it, she reveals to the audience an artistic cleverness that would befit someone much older than her, bringing to mind such actresses as Daisy Eagan and Sydney Lucas.
In what is perhaps the most highly-expected musical of the SHN season, we find humor and darkness dancing as one. Traversing the layers of meaning, we find access to significant comments on childhood, confidence, and the prospect of growing up, which we fear just as much as we desire it–which makes Matilda give much bang for your buck.
Photo courtesy of SHN. Photos by Joan Marcus.