"Matilda the Musical" announced itself as the production to beat at the box office and perhaps at the Tony Awards this season.
The West End transplant, which arrives courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, was a smash in London when it debuted in 2011. And critics believe little was lost when it opened Thursday night on Broadway. Australian songwriter Tim Minchin is the allusion-spouting phenom behind the witty score and, with last night's bundle of raves and a recent profile in the New Yorker, he looks ready to be the toast of Broadway.
Critics searched for fresh superlatives to describe the production, which adapts Roald Dahl's children's book about a bookish young girl rebelling against her dim-bulb parents and tyrannical headmistress. The production keeps intact the Englishness that was scrubbed clean in Danny DeVito's 1996 film adaptation.
Richard Zoglin praised the production as a bold step forward for the musical genre, writing in Time that Minchin's score is less ostentatious and more organic than many of the stale Tin Pan Alley knock-offs cropping up around Times Square. This one will stand the test of time, he concluded.
"It would be easy to call it the best British musical since 'Billy Elliot,' but that, I’m afraid, would be underselling it," Zoglin writes. "You have to go back to 'The Lion King' to find a show with as much invention, spirit and genre-redefining verve. After plugging through years of slick but workmanlike musicals, crowd-pleasing song cycles and formulaic spirit-lifters (latest example: 'Kinky Boots'), Matilda seems to clear away the deadwood and announce a fresh start for the Broadway musical."
Elisabeth Vincentelli was equally effusive in her New York Post review, writing that "Matilda" more than lives up to its advance hype and praising the production for staying true to Dahl's black humor.
"Once in a blue moon, a show comes out blazing and restores your faith in Broadway. 'Matilda The Musical' is that show," Vincentelli writes.
In the New York Times, Ben Brantley, who can be ornery in his assessments, urged theater lovers to barricade the Shubert Theatre where "Matilda" is currently playing. He found little to fault in the performances, the choreography or Minchin's score.
"In the first act Matilda sings, 'If you’re stuck in your story and want to get out/ You don’t have to cry and you don’t have to shout,'" Brantley writes. "'You just have to use your imagination and think everything through carefully, so it’s all of a piece.' That’s what the creators of 'Matilda' have done. Such strategy should be obvious. But in the current landscape of Broadway it’s applied rarely enough to make this show feel truly revolutionary."
Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called "Matilda," the best family musical in years," while also calling it a "grand cultural experience."
"At the international box office and in likely future long runs in Chicago and elsewhere, the key to the surely huge success of 'Matilda' will be in its subtle linkage to the Harry Potter market (another franchise that never has shied from dispensing hard truths to kids), its batting on the side of the girl-nerds who soon will rule the world and not just according to Beyonce, and its reminder of how some of us are old enough to remember when schools did not embrace compassion and kindness," Jones writes. "And very few of us had the guts or chops of Matilda and her pals. If only."
Thom Geler of Entertainment Weekly offered similar praise for the score, the book and the overall production, albeit with a few more reservations.
"Even gold-star students fall short of perfection, and the same is true of Matilda," Geler writes. "There's a squirm-inducing dip in momentum in the second act, with a longish lull and somewhat repetitive scenes between that growing-up song and the anarchic, 'Spring Awakening'-like final number, 'Revolting Children.' And that song is one of several whose tongue-twisting lyrics seem like a mouthful for very young performers less trained in enunciation."