How can you not love a musical about a badly mistreated pint-sized prodigy whose passion for reading rescues her from the bullies and boors around her?
"Matilda the Musical," the British import that became a Broadway hit, has a secret weapon in its title character — a precocious 5-year-old who reads Dostoevsky in the original Russian while her loutish parents browbeat her for not watching television and the monstrous headmistress of her school looks for excuses to sadistically punish her.
When the show opened on Broadway in 2013, I took quite a liking to Matilda herself but found the production a bit clamorous. The cartoon world drawn onstage was undeniably inventive, but the comic antics were performed to capture a toddler's attention, and the amplification was clobbering.
Matthew Warchus' staging has settled down in the touring production that has kicked off at the Ahmanson Theatre. The show may not have quite the same level of virtuosity, but the merits of Dennis Kelly's Tony Award-winning book are more apparent than they were in New York.
"Matilda" is still too long, but this twisted fable by Roald Dahl builds to a satisfying climax that will appeal to anyone who has struggled to create a better life than the one he or she was born into.
Tim Minchin's score is replete with stomping melodies for antic youngsters eager to escape the vise of authority. A satiric streak runs through the show, one that is harder on grown-ups than on children, yet there's a keen awareness throughout that many of those precious little ones are nothing more than mean and bitter adults in training.
"Miracle," the show's opening number, expresses this mocking spirit. As spoiled brats march about the stage, referring to themselves as miracles, their parents crow, "He's just delightful/So hilarious and insightful,/Might she be a little brighter than her class/Oh, yes, she's definitely advanced."
"No-neck monsters," Tennessee Williams' unforgettable phrase from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," might paint too harsh a portrait of this juvenile army, but if you've read Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" you probably have an idea of how ordinary tykes are being taught to think of themselves as beyond compare.
Matilda (played by Mabel Tyler on the night I attended), by contrast, really is something extraordinary. Sadly, hardly anyone takes notice.
Her self-engrossed mother, Mrs. Wormwood (Cassie Silva), cares only about ballroom dancing contests, while her father, Mr. Wormwood (Quinn Mattfeld), a crooked car salesman, refuses to even acknowledge that his daughter is, in fact, a girl, not a boy.
The soundtrack of Matilda's family life consists of TV roar and shouted insults. Her brother (Danny Tieger) occupies a privileged place in her parents' affections for the simple reason that he is a complete numbskull.
Matilda's father, disgusted by her love of learning, sends her to a school where the cruel headmistress, he hopes, will sort her out. A former Olympic hammer thrower, Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness in drag that's part gym teacher, part fire-breathing dragon) surpasses even Mr. Wormwood's frightening description of her.
Fortunately, there's someone on the faculty who recognizes the jewel of Matilda's mind. Miss Honey (lovely Jennifer Blood), a young and good-natured teacher, takes Matilda under wing, but she too is petrified of Miss Trunchbull, who grows more determined to discipline Matilda the more Miss Honey tries to protect her.
The musical's first half is overstretched, bouncing from Matilda's home to the school to the library, where she loads up on new books and tells stories to the librarian (Ora Jones), who can't get enough of the girl's macabre serial about a childless acrobat and an escape artist couple. But the show, unfolding on a set by Rob Howell in which alphabet letters play a prominent role, ingeniously comes together in the second half.
All those stories that Matilda has been devouring have endowed her with preternatural powers and rare wisdom. What's more, the yarn that she has been inventing for the librarian has a prophetic quality. Fiction, in Dahl's estimation, is more than fantasy — it is a source of secret knowledge that must be uncovered by author and reader alike.
The Broadway production was dominated by Bertie Carvel's fiendish Miss Trunchbull, toppling all in her tread, and Gabriel Ebert's Tony-winning turn as a Gumby-like Mr. Wormwood. Ryness makes even less of an effort than Carvel did to indicate that Miss Trunchbull is indeed a woman.Mattfeld doesn't possess the Ebert's scene-stealing commedia dell'arte range. These performers don't wow us with their ferocity or elasticity, but they illustrate their characters vividly all the same.
Tyler's Matilda is adorable, as I'm sure Gabby Gutierrez and Mia Sinclair Jenness, who alternate in the role, are as well. Short of stature, Tyler is large in spirit and conveys Matilda's sweetness and perceptiveness, her sadness and shrewdness, to the back of the cavernous house.
Though Blood's Miss Honey is a nervous Nellie, she's filled with such love for her charges that she rushes to their side when there is no one else to shield them.
"Matilda" isn't especially memorable for its staging or score, both of which are well done though hardly remarkable. What sets this show about a bookish youngster apart is its narrative enchantment. That is the magic that fittingly allows this musical to fly.
'Matilda the Musical'
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends July 12.
Tickets: $25 to $175 (Ticket prices subject to change.)
Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes