Kids dream of a better life in the song “When I Grow Up” from the musical “Matilda.” (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

‘Matilda’ falls short despite music, talented cast

A hit on London’s West End and on Broadway, the telekinetic bookworm and title character of “Matilda” has landed at the Orpheum with a bang and, unfortunately, a lot of boom.

It’s not surprising that a stage full of precocious singing and dancing children with outsized personalities (and adults acting like children) doing things that are “a little bit naughty” will elicit audience cheers.

Director Matthew Warchus sweetens the deal by sprinkling (but not sugarcoating) Roald Dahl’s quirky, misery-tinged story with a generous dash of musical theater fairy dust. This is delightfully evident in Rob Howell’s inventive set and costumes, which show off a wonderful embrace of the absurd.

The show boasts Tim Minchin’s engaging score, which suffers a little from poor diction in the children’s busier ensemble numbers and a lot from the increasingly annoying trend of over-amplifying musicals in order to infuse an artificial sense of import. Librettist Dennis Kelly’s adaptation feels functional but uneven, particularly in its hasty plotline-tidying coda.

As the pragmatic, truth-speaking title heroine (“That’s not right!”), Mabel Tyler has an amazing stage presence and does a winning job of holding the focus through the overlapping threads of Matilda’s miserable home and school lives, her fantasy life and her storytelling sessions. (The role is also played by alternates Gabby Gutierrez and Mia Sinclair Jenness.)

Diction notwithstanding, the rest of the kid cast earns applause working through Peter Darling’s angular and athletic choreography. Serena Quadrato is one to watch as the slightly unhinged Lavender, and a genuine sweetness plays out when the younger and older students try to swing-fly away to a happier time in “When I Grow Up.”

Their “anywhere but here” wish is inspired by Miss Trunchbull, who is like the meaner, uglier sister of “Annie’s” Miss Hannigan. It’s a prime part and Bryce Ryness squeezes every drop of juicy badness out of it. In his gifted rendition, the villainous Trunchbull alternates magnificently between over-the-top hysteria and the calm, laser-focused nastiness of “Glee’s” Sue Sylvester crossed with James Bond’s foil Blofeld.

Nearly as nasty, but with a heavier dash of buffoonery, Quinn Mattifield makes the impossibly coiffed Mr. Wormwood a master of faux profundity worthy of a beauty pageant contestant. There’s also no taming his vacuous shrew of a wife (the leggy Cassie Silva), whose monumental self-centeredness is consistently entertaining.

As Matilda’s sole ally against all this bad behavior, Jennifer Bloodworth’s Miss Honey is a worthy doormat, buckling under the Trunch crunch until the little girl saves the day.

With all these positive components, it’s surprisingly disappointing that by the end of the night, the emotional takeaway for “Matilda” feels truncated and somewhat lackluster.

IF YOU GO
Matilda The Musical
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays; closes Aug. 15
Tickets: $45 to $210
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

 

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