Welcome to the deliriously amusing, malevolent, heartwarming, head-spinning world of “Matilda: The Musical.”
You won’t want to leave.
“My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm,” are the first words we hear from Matilda, a child whose nitwit parents despise her with the same zeal other mums and dads use to celebrate their spawn.
In the “Miracle” number opening the show, a rainbow coalition of kids sings about how very special they are because their parents told them.
Not so Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita) when she learns the beach ball in her abdomen is something that can’t be cured with penicillin. She’ll have to miss the Bi-Annual International Amateur Salsa and Ballroom Dancing Championships in Paris.
“Oh bloody hell!” she whines, as singers around her warble into the stethoscope microphones.
Thank Roald Dahl, who wrote with such glee about drunk, stupid, lazy, cruel adults and bewilderedly abused, brilliant children, of whom Matilda is the paradigm.
As in London, where the show is a huge hit, “Matilda” is directed by Matthew Warchus with songs by Tim Minchin and a book adapted from Dahl by Dennis Kelly.
Matilda (I saw the preternaturally wise-looking Milly Shapiro, one of four girls alternating in the role) barely survives infancy with her loutish father (Gabriel Ebert), a used car salesman other used car salesmen wouldn’t trust; her swinish, dancing mother and moronic brother (Taylor Trensch).
All are aghast at the girl’s obsession with books, a point nicely emphasized by designer Rob Howell, who has blanketed the front of the Shubert Theatre with letter tiles, looking like a Scrabble player’s hallucination.
Matilda gets even by being “Naughty,” one of Minchin’s cheerier ditties, turning her dad’s hair green and gluing on his hat.
Eventually she’s sent away to school, a joyless prison suffused with green light and run by the demented Miss Trunchbull (the devastatingly funny vaudevillian Bertie Carvel), a former hammer-throwing champion who sings to her trophies like Sweeney Todd singing to his razors. “If you want to teach success,” she sings, “you don’t use sympathy or tenderness.”
In one simply beautiful playground scene, the children swing back and forth, almost out over the audience. They have no malice, only the desire to be brave enough to fight the monsters hiding beneath their beds.
Trunchbull’s psycho sense of justice brings out the fighter in Matilda. She finds solace in the attentions of the wonderful Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), who recognizes her genius but can hardly protect her.
Matilda also regales a benevolent librarian with a tale of the love between “The World’s Greatest Escapologist” (Ben Thompson) and a death-defying acrobat (Samantha Sturm).
Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling have devised “Matilda” as a mad cartoon. In one scene they pile the school children atop one another, their arms extended like some multilimbed god as Miss Trunchbull looks on in contorted fury.
Ebert slithers slimily in several of Howell’s many satisfyingly grotesque costumes as he sings about the pleasures of cheating his customers.
Howell is also responsible for the belle lettres set, with its hidden words drawing our eye throughout the Shubert Theatre. Hugh Vanstone’s candy-colored lighting adds its own zing to the proceedings.
To their great credit, the writers and Warchus have underplayed the telekinetic powers with which Dahl endowed Matilda. One of this show’s many strengths is its reliance on human, not technological, magic.
The ensemble, young and old, boasts terrific performances across the boards. But the true amazement is in the unaffected yet utterly self-composed and irresistible performance of young Shapiro; I can only hope the other Matildas are equally enchanting.
At the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: *****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include New York Weekend and Lewis Lapham on books.