“Matilda”: What Did the Critics Think?

Joan Marcus

“Matilda,” a musical smash in London, thanks in no small part to the brilliant Bertie Carvel as malevolent headmistress Miss Trunchbull, finally opened on our shores last night, with Carvel reprising his Olivier Award-winning role at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

Based on the beloved novel by best-selling author Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), “Matilda” is the story of a confident young lady with a penchant for reading and a mysterious talent she's just coming to understand. The four girls rotating into the title role are Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro, each making a Broadway debut.

Original West End cast member Lauren Ward also makes the trip to New York, as Miss Honey, the teacher who bonds with and protects her capable student. Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus (“God of Carnage”) staged the production, which has a book by playwright Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by the Australian comedian and composer Tim Minchin.

Here’s what some of the top theater critics had to say:

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: “The English hit ‘Matilda’ ... is a witty musical adaptation of the beloved novel by Roald Dahl and is true to his bleak vision of childhood as a savage battleground. ... The musical arrives in New York with plenty of hype and awards, and it mostly delivers a thrilling blast of nasty fun, even if it's a bit swollen and in need of some fine-tuning. It also has come with perhaps its most grotesque masterstroke: Bertie Carvel as the fearsome cross-dressing school headmistress Miss Trunchbull.”

David Cote, Time Out New York: “Matilda’s a born genius, but this put-upon girl is also ‘a little bit naughty,’ as she sings. You have to be to survive in her noisome, vulgar world. ... Happily, Matilda follows its diminutive hero’s lead: It maintains a high level of cheeky mischief while hitting the requisite sentimental notes and a refreshing antiauthoritarian message.”

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: “Even gold-star students fall short of perfection, and the same is true of Matilda. There's a squirm-inducing dip in momentum in the second act... On the other hand, even when you fail to pick up a well-turned phrase or eye-rolling pun, you will probably find yourself responding like a just-tucked-in child at bedtime. You want to shout, 'Again!' and demand that the cast start over from the very beginning so you might catch everything that you missed -- and revel in everything that you savored the first time around.”

Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg: “To their great credit, the writers and Warchus have underplayed the telekinetic powers with which Dahl endowed Matilda. One of this show’s many strengths is its reliance on human, not technological, magic.

Brendan Lemon, Financial Times: “The producers of this $16 million transatlantic transplant, which was hatched by the Royal Shakespeare Company, took a risk by not Americanising it nor diluting the acid tones of the material ... The verdict: risk rewarded.”

Matt Wolf, The Telegraph: “In some ways, the original innocence of the piece has been lost. There’s a harder-edged quality to the New York staging: the general tenor is louder and more exaggerated ... But the tremendous heart and intelligence of the piece remains undimmed ... At the show’s capacious heart, one can only thrill to the tiny yet mightily determined Shapiro as she takes the audience on Matilda’s journey from a surrounding loutishness and neglect through to a world of learning, literature and, by the final curtain, love. I’ll vote for that.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: “Danny DeVito’s 1996 movie of Dahl’s book preserved the sinister eccentricity, but it altered the tone by making an Americanized human cartoon out of a quintessentially British story. This incarnation not only reclaims its national roots, but tethers them to the imaginative realm of prose fiction even before the show starts.”

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