Drury Lane's 'Matilda the Musical' celebrates reading, rebellion

  • Supersmart Matilda (Audrey Edwards who alternates the role with Natalie Galla) finds refuge in books in Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "Matilda the Musical."

    Supersmart Matilda (Audrey Edwards who alternates the role with Natalie Galla) finds refuge in books in Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "Matilda the Musical." Courtesy of Brett Beiner

 
 

"Matilda the Musical" - ★ ★ ★

Never have "revolting children" been so endearing as the youngsters in "Matilda the Musical," a witty, arresting show about a book-loving young girl who uses imagination, intellect and language to combat bullying parents and a tyrannical headmistress.

So persuasively does Matilda fight the powers that be, that she sparks a rebellion among her classmates whose triumph over cruelty and oppression plays out gloriously in Drury Lane Theatre's regional premiere under director/choreographer and West End veteran Mitch Sebastian.

"We are revolting children/Living in revolting times. We sing revolting songs/Using revolting rhymes," they exclaim during their exuberant insurrection. It's one of several deliciously subversive numbers in a show whose strength rests with the well-loved Roald Dahl children's book that inspired it, and with composer/lyricist Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly, who masterfully and faithfully adapted it for the stage.

Minchin's fresh score (uniquely orchestrated by Chris Nightingale) defies categorization. His lyrics, like Kelly's book, range from warmly evocative to acerbic. The former is evident in the lovely "Quiet," which Minchin describes as lying upside down on a bed with "just the sound of your heart in your head." The latter Minchin expresses in the timely "Loud," in which a character observes that it's not what you know that matters, it's the volume at which you express your ignorance at a time when "content has never been less important."

Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace presents the regional premiere of "Matilda the Musical."
Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace presents the regional premiere of "Matilda the Musical." - Courtesy of Brett Beiner
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An equal opportunity satirist, Minchin sends up doting parents of "exceptional" children in the wry "Miracle" and TV-obsessed airheads in the amusing "Telly."

But what's most admirable about "Matilda the Musical" is its refusal to pull its punches and its willingness to show us the emotional and psychological toll that cruel, unthinking adults have on children. All of that is reflected in set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec's dark, vaguely ominous set. His rotating, rectangular towers (which recall oversized storybooks) serve as backdrop for lighting/projection designer Driscoll Otto's understated images.

The story centers on the titular Matilda Wormwood (a sprightly Audrey Edwards, who alternates with Warrenville's Natalie Galla). A precocious girl with a quick mind and other special powers, Matilda loves reading, a passion her crass, careless family -- double-dealing dad (Jackson Evans), shallow mom (Stephanie Gibson) and dimwitted older brother (Evan C. Dolan) -- do not share. In fact, they rebuke her, prompting Matilda's clever albeit naughty response.

School proves equally miserable for this pint-size champion for right not might. Presiding over the grim institution is tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Sean Fortunato, who plays the drag role with menacing authenticity and a good amount of relish). She terrorizes students, whom she calls maggots, incarcerating disobedient youngsters in a contraption called The Chokey.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Compassionate young educator Miss Honey (Eben K. Logan), left, confronts the brutal principal Miss Trunchbull (Sean Fortunato) in Drury Lane Theatre's "Matilda the Musical," based on Roald Dahl's children's book.
Compassionate young educator Miss Honey (Eben K. Logan), left, confronts the brutal principal Miss Trunchbull (Sean Fortunato) in Drury Lane Theatre's "Matilda the Musical," based on Roald Dahl's children's book. - Courtesy of Brett Beiner

The bright spot is Miss Honey (Eben K. Logan), a good-hearted teacher who recognizes Matilda's prowess. So does the kindly librarian Mrs. Phelps (Linda Bright Clay), who provides a rapt listener for Matilda's stories, including one vivid tale about the love affair between an Escapologist (Paul-Jordan Jansen) and an Acrobat (Lexis Danca).

The performances are solid throughout: from Edward's spunky, self-assurance, to the gleeful garishness evidenced by Evans, Gibson and Dolan to the warmth and affection of Logan's Miss Honey, a shining example of the dedicated educator.

Crass and corrupt, Matilda's parents (Jackson Evans, left and Stephanie Gibson) and brother (Evan C. Dolan) prefer looks and television over books and education in "Matilda the Musical," running through June 23 at Drury Lane Theatre.
Crass and corrupt, Matilda's parents (Jackson Evans, left and Stephanie Gibson) and brother (Evan C. Dolan) prefer looks and television over books and education in "Matilda the Musical," running through June 23 at Drury Lane Theatre. - Courtesy of Brett Beiner
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Sebastian's kinetic choreography recalls Bill T. Jones' work for "Spring Awakening" (another musical about "revolting" youngsters). In the exuberant "When I Grow Up," one of the show's high points, he artfully juxtaposes childhood dreams with adult reality. And in Miss Honey's paean to her modest home and Matilda's moving duet with The Escapologist's idealized father, Sebastian creates truly resonant moments.

However, there are times when the concept overwhelms the narrative and the stagecraft -- including revolving stage, shadow images and rotating towers -- becomes a distraction. Also, conductor Christopher Sargent's septet sometimes overpowers the singers, who could mind their diction more carefully.

That said, the spirit of "Matilda" is perfectly clear: a celebration of reading and the magnificent rebellion that knowledge ignites.

• • •

Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. (630) 530-0111 or drurylanetheatre.com

Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through June 23

Tickets: $50-$70

Running time: About two hours, 45 minutes including intermission

Parking: Free parking in lot adjacent to the theater

Rating: For almost all ages, might be too intense for very young children

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