Tim Minchin's lyrics for Matilda the Musical cleverly capture the spirit of Roald Dahl's beloved book: They are sassy, wistful, and playfully smart. Too bad the audience at the Winspear Opera House can't hear 98 percent of them.
It's not simply a matter of bad sound design either. The little moppets that comprise a large part of the cast are instructed to shrilly screech their lines in an exaggerated British accent, and the adults don't fare much better. Add in Peter Darling's impulsive, acrobatic choreography, and there's not a chance of understanding the songs or even the spoken stories that so much of the show is built upon.
And this is a show about stories. Rob Howell's set is dotted with alphabet blocks, refuge is often found in a library, and our precocious little heroine escapes her dismal family by crafting fantastic tales about an acrobat and an escape artist (it was "escapologist" in the original London production, but good luck getting the kids to properly pronounce that). Thankfully, Howell's exuberant design and costumes help get these ideas across, since Minchin and book writer Dennis Kelly may well have been writing in another language.
Perhaps 5-year-old Matilda Wormwood (Mia Sinclair Jenness, who alternates with Gabby Gutierrez and Mabel Tyler) could have interpreted that language, since she is established early on as being not only honest and brave but brilliant too. Her parents (Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfeld) openly despise their unwanted daughter, who dares to do more than sit slack-jawed in front of the telly like her simple-minded brother (Danny Tieger, funny since his lines are few).
To get her out of their hair, the Wormwoods send the little girl off to a nightmarish school run with an iron fist by a cruel headmistress who delights in punishing students by sending them to "The Chokey." Only the quiet teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood) sees Matilda's potential and vows to overcome her shyness and help the girl succeed.
This is what I gleaned from having seen the show on Broadway and being familiar with the score. If you're going in blind to Matilda the Musical, well, good luck deciphering the story (although there's a pamphlet in the program that more or less walks through the plot). Your only onstage ally will be actor Bryce Ryness who is saddled with a wonderfully ridiculous costume and an accent that's drier than fall leaves and yet still manages to crisply enunciate every single syllable.
He's playing the horrific Miss Trunchbull, an imposing gal who looks like someone stuck an anvil atop two toothpicks and added a dress and a grimace. Every put-down, every threat, every deliciously wicked remark is timed for maximum humor. And his big song "The Smell of Rebellion" is understandable even as he flips and jumps while leading a tortuous-looking physical education class. It's almost enough to make you forget about the escapologist.
Matilda the Musical plays the Winspear Opera House through October 4.