“Matilda” at the 5th Avenue: An Ambitious Undertaking
“Matilda” marks the first show I’ve attended at the “5th Avenue Theater” since 2008. Expectations were very high coming in. The novel was a childhood favorite, and the musical adaptation has been a smash hit:
Winner of 50 international awards including four Tony Awards® and a record-breaking seven Olivier Awards including Best Musical, Matilda The Musical is based on the beloved novel by best-selling author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox). It is the story of an extraordinary girl who dreams of a better life. Armed with a vivid imagination and a sharp mind, Matilda dares to take a stand and change her destiny.
Visually, the sets and the lighting are incredible, combining scale with imagination to convey the world through the eyes of a child. But the most ambitious aspect of the show is the casting. Child actors are notoriously difficult to work with and are usually avoided, but “Matilda” puts them at the forefront, in roles that would be challenging even for grownups.
One pleasant result is that “Matilda” shatters the “bamboo ceiling” and casts several Asian American actors. When “Matilda” performed on Letterman and at the Tony’s, several of Matilda’s classmates were Asian. On opening night at the 5th Avenue, Matilda was played by a Filipino actress. Casting at the adult level is a buyer’s market, and directors narrow down on those who fit a certain mold. But the selection of good actors is limited at the child level, which means they can’t afford to turn down good talent. And so “Matilda” provides opportunities for actors who would normally be overlooked, and it’s a better show because of it.
Still, the play does have some flaws. I found the lyrics incredibly difficult to understand, and nearly every conversation I overheard in the audience said the same thing. The woman next to me complained it might as well been a foreign language. You have 10 year old American actors singing in chorus in front of an American audience, and their voices end up crowding together.
To make matters worse, the song lyrics for Matilda are very dense, very fast, and often very abstract. For instance, “School Song” involves an alphabet motif, where the bullies cycle from one letter to the next. The meaning is obvious when you watch it performed on video, with the benefit of sound editing and closeups, but not when you’re watching it live on stage.
My personal experiences are purely anecdotal. One of my actress friends said she had no trouble following along due to her training. Still, a lot of children will have a hard time following along, especially if they’re experiencing theater for the first time. My friend’s daughter told me that she’s watched the movie version “over 500 billion times.” Though she found many parts of the musical enjoyable, but she liked the movie better because it was easier to follow and “because it’s a movie.” That’s not the response I wanted to hear.
“Matilda” is a beautiful production, and the musical adaptation adaptations adds an additional subplot about circus performers for those who are only familiar with the book or the movie. I only wish it was a tad more accessible, especially to younger viewers. The easiest fix would be to ditch the British accents entirely. The purists will call me a heretic. If it ever did happen, it would have to be during a Broadway Revival, 10 or 20 years down the line. In the mean time, the best bet for families would be to buy the soundtrack for your kids to listen to in advance. That way, they’ll have a much easier time following along when they catch the show live.
Matilda plays from now until Sept. 6 at the 5th Avenue Theater in Downtown Seattle.