NEW YORK — Dwelling among us, ladies and gentlemen, is a super-race of tiny entertainment machines. Disguised as children, they sing, act, dance, tumble and generally bedazzle, as if each of them has spent a whole lifetime or two in show biz.
A small army of them has invaded Broadway’s Shubert Theatre and, along with an astonishing adult performance by a heretofore unheralded British actor on these shores, Bertie Carvel, they form the captivating cadre of kids in “Matilda,” by some large and tickling measure the most splendiferous new musical of the year.
With a delectably clever score by Tim Minchin and a slyly evocative book by Dennis Kelly, the musical, minted by the Royal Shakespeare Company and adapted from the story by Roald Dahl (of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” fame), is distinguished by its wonderful look and a caliber of choreography for young people you rarely ever experience.
It’s the tale — known to you, perhaps, from a rather ordinary 1996 movie version — of a little girl of remarkable intellect, whose gifts and worth go unnoticed by her monstrously insensitive parents. Matilda is played at various performances at the Shubert, where the show had its official opening Thursday night, by one of four little actresses. And if Milly Shapiro’s accomplished, confident, well-sung Matilda sets the standard, then any one of this pint-size quartet will make you — and any other grown-up or child who happens to tag along — happy to be a ticket holder.
Director Matthew Warchus, choreographer Peter Darling and set and costume designer Rob Howell conjure a universe of exotic and yet familiar flavors, as they unfold for us the series of trying hands that life deals the indefatigable Matilda, both at home and, more hilariously, at school — the spawning ground, it seems, of all British nightmares. In “Matilda,” the horror of adult supervision is embodied in a headmistress of such titanic awfulness that she’s tailor-made for musical lampooning.
Miss Trunchbull is her name, a hyper-neurotic, Sherman tank of a woman (and former Olympic hammer-throw champion) played by Carvel (a man, by the way) with such breathtakingly sadistic virtuosity that well, he/she’s a bloody marvel. With hair in a bun perched menacingly on the top of his head, and a hand fixed in a bizarre salute, the wormy fingers wiggling wispily, Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull is as close as you can imagine to a figure who’d swim in your head after consuming a tablespoonful of spoiled mayonnaise.
Speaking of spoilage, the musical is informed by one of the child-rearing currents of our age: that our kids are perfect, and no amount of attention paid to them is too much. The musical’s first number is a paean to overindulgence, as the kids, at one of the ceaseless parade of birthday parties that is modern childhood, sing a rhythmic line you won’t be able to get out of your head.
“My mummy says I’m a miracle,” chant the young actors, moving with uncanny precision to Darling’s arm-thrusting, hip-hop-inspired dances. Howell’s scenery — the walls and ceiling of the Shubert are adorned with hundreds of alphabet building blocks — changes with almost as much dynamism as the choreography.
It’s as immersive and strangely moving — for adults, surely — as any new musical to come along in a while. Minchin, Kelly, Warchus and company have worked an incandescent sort of magic in turning a Broadway theater into a Dahl’s house.
music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, book by Dennis Kelly. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreography, Peter Darling; sets and costumes, Rob Howell; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; illusions, Paul Kieve; musical supervisor, Chris Nightingale. With Lesli Margherita, Gabriel Ebert, Lauren Ward, Karen Aldridge. About 2½ hours. At Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 800-432-7250.