REVIEW: Matilda: The Musical at the Academy of Music

An enjoyable show but technical snafus left the audience tapping its feet. Is the production just too much for a theater like the Academy to handle?

Photo by Joan Marcus for Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.

Photo by Joan Marcus from Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.

Is a show like Matilda: The Musical too big to properly tour?

That question was definitely on my mind last evening after I left the performance at the Academy of Music. The touring Broadway musical has come a long way since, say, the first national tour of Cats, which pretty much employed a strand of Christmas tree lights on the stage and called it a “set.” But at least that set worked.

Last evening’s Matilda was plagued with technical malfunctions throughout the performance, including one that literally stopped the show during act one, causing an announcer to broadcast that the set was having difficulties. The other major malfunction took place during the climax of the show. I won’t give the plot away, but the moment was supposed to involve a piece of chalk magically writing a message on a board. Let’s just say the chalk stopped working.

This is, of course, live theater, and these things do happen. But there’s an expectation that audiences have with a show like Matilda that make these sort of technical snafus unacceptable. In short, everyone — including the performers — deserve better.

Mabel Tyler and Jennifer Blood. Photo by Joan Marcus from Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.

Mabel Tyler and Jennifer Blood. Photo by Joan Marcus from Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.

That’s a shame because the musical is enjoyable, although truly mis-categorized as theater for children. Beauty and the Beast this is not. Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, the show is overflowing with twisted humor (which I quite enjoyed), dark, evil characters, a not-so-subtle social criticism of our inability to critically think, and a rather long runtime. I couldn’t help but wonder why several parents brought toddlers to the production.

The cast, largely comprised of a talented crew of kids, was highly energetic and entertaining. However, at times the youth ensemble was extremely difficult to hear and understand: It was a common complaint from audience members that they just couldn’t get the words of the songs. I agree with these grumblings: I felt like I needed subtitles to get the lyrics, like I was at the opera.

The title role is shared by a series of young actresses, and last evening Mabel Tyler took on the massive part with wide eyes, impeccable timing, and captivating style. Also notable were Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, played by the warm and talented Jennifer Blood, and the truly evil Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress with a thing for physical education, played by Drama Desk nominee Bryce Ryness in purposely bad drag.

The show is, on the technical side, huge: There’s video projections and confetti cannons and desks that seem to rotate like magic. It might be too much for an older space like the Academy to handle: I’ve always questioned why these types of touring shows don’t play the Forrest Theatre, which is designed to handle the Broadway musical in a much more suitable fashion.

There’s no doubt that Matilda has a giant heart underneath the dark world created on the stage. The humor and style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is engaging. However, the technical elements of the touring production need to be examined, polished, and finessed. A show this big is too big to fail.

“Matilda: The Musical” plays the Academy of Music now through November 29. For tickets and more information, click here.

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