Tim Minchin has had a lot of curtain calls over the last five years.
From Stratford-upon-Avon, the English village where his musical Matilda made its debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to the West End in 2011, Broadway in 2012 and an ongoing American tour, back home to Sydney last year and Melbourne, opening last night. There Minchin was again, beaming under his witchy black mane, with a cabinet full of awards and a head full of praise; the acerbic Aussie songman who was never supposed to write the most creatively charming piece of music theatre of the last decade.
It plays on in New York and London, selling out houses eight times a week, and will tour Australia well into next year. It’s that rare work of commercial musical theatre — adapted from a book and borrowing from a film, yes, but with startling originality — that deserves its success.
I first saw Matilda on Broadway in 2013 and adored its every note. On second viewing here — the same cookie-cutter production, but with a fine local ensemble — I can see its flaws. The book, by Dennis Kelly, isn’t as clever as Minchin’s uncanny score. It’s darker and more complex than almost any other family stage fare, as Roald Dahl absolutely demands, but Kelly’s narrative flow is a little uneven. Some scenes are flabby or redundant.
Perhaps original director Matthew Warchus (also responsible for Ghost, now playing in Sydney) deserves some blame for that, too. But his staging is so inventive, injected with such infectious energy, it papers over any cracks. The choreography (by Peter Darling) borders on thrilling; the set (Rob Howell, also the costumes) is simply magical.
But for me this truly is Minchin’s show. It’s a lolloping score, sweet and sour at just the right junctures, punctuated by some unforgettable melodies. From the opening number Miracle — a modern-day parenting fable (“My mummy says I’m a miracle / My daddy says I’m his special little guy”) — Minchin brandishes his wicked lyrical wit. He burrows into the complicated heads of Matilda (Quiet) and her caring teacher Miss Honey (Pathetic) with a recitative dexterity Stephen Sondheim must be proud of. Bruce Bogtrotter’s feat of involuntary cake-eating is the triumphant moment it should be in the riotously rhythmic Bruce. Miss Trunchbull, literature’s most fearsome school principal, takes monstrous voice in The Hammer. When I Grow Up — “I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed” — is a rousing showstopper at the start of act two, reprised for the finale, and stuck in your head forever more; it beautifully juxtaposes the giddy impatience of the children with Miss Honey’s yearning to break the yoke of her own repressed life. The soundtrack bears repeat listening for its drollery — you’ll miss some of Minchin’s little lollies the first time.
This Australian production has been well cast. As the slimy parents, comic in their cruelty, Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen are terrific. Elise McCann’s Miss Honey is fragile in character and robust in voice (her act-two ballad, My House, was particularly stirring). Cle Morgan plays librarian Mrs Phelps as broadly as it’s written (another forgivable flaw of the book). Miss Trunchbull is cast as a man, and free of any pantomime winking it works a treat. James Millar makes it a star turn; I reckon he’s as good as Bertie Carvel, who originated the role in England and followed the show to New York.
A new crop of precocious Matildas has been cultivated for Melbourne: Ingrid Torelli, Dusty Bursill, Tiana Mirra and Alannah Parfett. Torelli won the opening night honour, with a lovely voice and impregnable presence. Matilda’s mantra of “that’s not right” mirrors the almost unbearable responsibility of the little lead in this show. Torelli didn’t let anyone down. All the kids are great; the ensemble numbers (filled out by classmates who have obviously been kept back repeatedly), directed with such verve, are the strongest moments in the show.
Minchin lost the Tony Award for best score to none other than pop icon Cyndi Lauper, who penned the film-to-stage Kinky Boots which comes to Melbourne later this year. He was robbed. Matilda is so much smarter, smarter than you think musical theatre can be. It’s an all-ages miracle.