Tim Minchin channels Roald Dahl in ‘Matilda’

Tim Minchin wrote the music and lyrics to the hit musical “Matilda.” (Rob Latour/Invision/AP)

Tim Minchin’s cheerfulness and modesty belie the enormous talent required to turn “Matilda” into a musical that stayed true to Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book of the same name.

“I felt, in many ways, incredibly ill-equipped to tackle this. You can very easily lose what makes Dahl Dahl, which is a certain darkness and angular feel,” Minchin said in San Francisco at an event to promote the hit show, which opens this week at the Orpheum Theatre.

Clearly, Michin got it right. The show – produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company featuring a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australian comedian-actor Minchin – has packed houses in London and New York and won more than 45 awards, including a Tony.

The story centers on a young girl named Matilda Wormwood. Born to parents who are completely disinterested in her, Matilda finds solace in books and her teacher, who recognizes her intelligence. As Matilda becomes more confident, she uses her guile to stand up to the evil school headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.

With a great plot, great lyrics and a spunky heroine in a school uniform singing in an English accent, the show works on multiple levels and is as entertaining for adults as for kids.

“It’s absolutely a kid’s show and it’s absolutely not a kid’s show,” Minchin says. “The whole story is about rebellion and not letting the bastards get you down. This is a musical that’s meant to give kids a sense of spirit.”

Although he used his own words for the lyrics, Minchin’s poetric phrasing feels true to Dahl’s brilliant writing. In the song “Naughty,” Matilda sings “A storm can begin with the flap of a wing/The tiniest mite packs the mightiest sting/Every day starts with the tick of a clock/All escapes start with the click of a lock.”

Although Dahl died in 1990, his work is as popular as ever. Part of the reason, Minchin says, is that he doesn’t talk down to kids.

“(Kids) want to see a kid use some special talent,” he says. “The great thing is Matilda does it by knowledge. Books are her redemption.”

IF YOU GO
Matilda The Musical
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F.
When: Opens Wednesday, runs Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Aug. 15
Tickets: $45 to $210
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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