At the dramatic end of the first act of Matilda the Musical, the much-wronged little heroine shouts out her rage, pain and defiance in one charged sentence — and a murmur arises from the audience:
“What did she say?”
That’s right: It’s impossible to understand half the dialogue. Or the song lyrics. Watching a big number, particularly those performed by the children in Miss Trunchbull’s terrible school, you appreciate the originality and spirit of the choreography, but you have very little idea what the kids are singing about. This might not be a problem for a mindless musical like Wicked, but I’m pretty sure the lyrics for Matilda, by Australian comic Tim Minchin, are swift, literate and witty. I’m also guessing that the fantastical story Matilda tells an enthralled librarian about an escape artist and an acrobat has all kinds of meaning both metaphorical and in direct relation to the plot — but while I did get the general gist, which was something about a dangerous stunt, dynamite and a wicked sister, I lost most of it, when it should have sounded as clear and enthralling as your mother reading you a bedtime story when you’re little. I suspect that Mabel Tyler, who played Matilda on the night I attended the show, has a fresh and pleasant young girl’s voice — and she also has loads of bright stage presence — but the amplification made her sound as if she were shrieking at the top of her lungs. “Go on,” the librarian urged her, while every fiber of your being responded: Please don’t.
This was not the fault of the Buell, where the touring show has landed. Checking when I got home, I found that several critics around the country — both those who loved Matilda and those who didn’t — had criticized the acoustics. And for the critics who thought the problem lay in the cast’s English accents, I can assure them that those weren’t English accents. No one anywhere in the British Isles speaks anything like these characters, with a couple of ear-soothing exceptions: Jennifer Blood, who plays a charming Miss Honey, seems to have modeled her accent on Fawlty Towers’s Polly, with good results, and Bryce Ryness’s Miss Trunchbull is so fascinating and has such compellingly low-voiced and precise enunciation that it doesn’t matter how Ryness chooses to lengthen his “a”s — though he actually does the accent well.
What all this means is that the producers know the sound is crappy and think people will pay top prices anyway, because Matilda has won a lot of Tonys and Oliviers (a Royal Shakespeare Company production, it premiered in London). Or they just don’t care about language, even when mounting a production based on the mordantly brilliant work of children’s writer Roald Dahl.
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Dahl’s Matilda is dark for a children’s book. It tells the story of a horribly abused little girl who loves reading and whose parents are utterly ignorant nincompoops. Why can’t she get her information and entertainment from the telly, like all right-thinking people? wonders her father (a lively and amusing Quinn Mattfeld). She’s sent to a school presided over by the sadistic Trunchbull, a onetime Olympic hammer-throwing champion who makes Annie’s Miss Hannigan seem like the sweetly chuckling Mrs. Doubtfire. Under these terrible circumstances, Matilda finds her inner power, and also a gift for kinesis that allows her to thwart her enemies, free her fellow children and move forward into a happy future with the lovely Miss Honey, who was once an abused urchin herself. The show goes on too long, with a couple of unnecessary plot twists at the end, but Matilda the Musical seems a first-rate piece of work in terms of dialogue, choreography, songs, set design, costumes and the overall talent on stage. (Not only is Ryness’s Trunchbull transfixing, but his costume is so creepy, lumpy and cunning that it could almost have played the role all by itself.)
Despite all of this, I found myself working hard and painfully through a long, long evening, leaning forward in my seat, straining to make out what I was being told, and sensing that while I was getting something out of the experience, it wasn’t nearly as much as I should have. It felt rather like taking a shower in a raincoat. Or making love through an athletic-sock condom.
Matilda the Musical, presented by Denver Center Attractions through September 20, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.