Before we get to the multifarious delights of “Matilda,” the musical making a holiday splash at the Kennedy Center Opera House, I have to utter a couple of words about the Opera House itself. Those words are bah and humbug.
I invoke them because the hall’s sound system or acoustics are so atrocious that they have the capability of transforming merrily expectant theatergoers into embittered Scrooges. I know that I am not alone in my belief that the biggest of the Kennedy Center’s performance spaces needs a thorough rethinking on how it handles large-ensemble musicals, because virtually every time one materializes there, I receive emails from people who have emptied their wallets for the show, only to discover they’ve paid to hear half the lyrics — at best.
Why in technologically sophisticated 2015 this should be the case is, to be blunt, outrageous. I’ve had the intelligibility experience too many times now to merely mention it as an aside, at the bottom of a review. And it’s especially frustrating in the case of the gladdening “Matilda,” because composer Tim Minchin’s songs are of the bitingly clever variety that beseech children and adults alike to listen closely and savor the wicked wit. (I note that there have been complaints about audibility in the Broadway version’s similarly boisterous, fast-spoken production numbers. But in the aurally dysfunctional Opera House, the problem is only, you’ll pardon the expression, amplified.)
In the substantial stretches when this touring “Matilda” achieves clarity, though, the experience is indeed as good as Broadway. Thanks to some sterling work — by Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld as Matilda’s hilariously bad parents, the Wormwoods; Jennifer Blood as the kind-hearted teacher Miss Honey; and most sensationally, Bryce Ryness, playing the toxic waste of a headmistress Miss Trunchbull — the vinegary satisfactions of Dennis Kelly’s script, based on Roald Dahl’s novel, assert themselves boldly and ingeniously.
Then, of course, there is the ferociously talented cadre of kids, led on the evening I attended by Mabel Tyler, who rotates on the road in the role of Matilda with Tori Feinstein and Gabrielle Gutierrez. Like the youngsters who’ve borne the responsibilities of “Annie” and “Billy Elliot” before her, Mabel has to shoulder an immense burden in “Matilda”: making the driving of a complex entertainment machine look like child’s play. And wow, does she pull it off. Aside from being an adorable presence, she’s a technically adroit singer and dancer, those abilities on display in songs such as Act 1’s “Naughty” and Act 2’s “Quiet.”
“Just because you find that life’s not fair, it / Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it,” Mabel-as-Matilda sings in “Naughty.” (It helps with the lyrics to have played the cast album several dozen times.) Mounting a precocious challenge to the tyranny of adult power is a recurring sentiment of “Matilda,” as it relates to the cartoonish horrors of her home and school. Unloved by her grotesque parents and tormented by the sadistic Miss Trunchbull, unflappable Matilda finds solace in books and, ultimately, the caring nature of Miss Honey, who in turn learns from the little girl about rising above adversity. Matilda’s freedom-seeking classmates learn the lesson, too, as Miss Trunchbull is forced from her omnipotent perch in a magic-infused coup d’etat.
Director Matthew Warchus and the A-plus creative team of choreographer Peter Darling, set and costume designer Rob Howell and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone dream up a marvelous physical realm of variegated tone for Dahl’s story. The staging of a number in Act 1, “School Song,” in which the older students tick off for Matilda’s incoming class the terrors of their daily ABCs, manages all at once to be haunting, funny and a visual treat. The illusions devised by Paul Kieve add yet another gleeful dimension.
No performances are more joyful, though, than those involving the vilest characters. Mattfeld and Silva invest the garish Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood with a happily clownish sense of stupidity, and each gets an aptly funny number to demonstrate it: Silva in the rhumbaing “Loud,” Mattfeld in the music-hall ditty “Telly.” For priceless misanthropy, though, it’s Ryness’s Miss Trunchbull — a villain so menacing that Captain Hook would tremble — who wins an audience’s loudest cheers. The headmistress’s demented hatred of her charges rises to high show-tune art in the evening’s terrifically delivered apotheosis, “The Smell of Rebellion.”
“Matilda” is one of those refreshingly smart children’s musicals that doesn’t talk — or sing — down to anyone. It’s worth hearing every word of it. Let’s hope someone at the Kennedy Center works overtime to make sure you can.
Matilda, by Roald Dahl, book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreography, Peter Darling; sets and costumes, Rob Howell; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; sound, Simon Baker; illusions, Paul Kieve; orchestrations, Chris Nightingale. With Danny Tieger, Justin Packard, Ashley Elizabeth Hale, Ian Michael Stuart, Jaquez Andre Sims. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Tickets, $30 to $204. Through Jan. 10 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. kennedy-center.org. 202-467-4600.