Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hello, Dahl-y

I've managed to spend more than twice as many days blogging about my London vacation as I did actually taking it. For those of you who are hoping I'll stop showing you "vacation slides" and get back to my regular steady stream of babbling about movies and such, you're in luck -- I've reached the end! Just one more thing to talk about: Matilda the Musical.

For all the amazing things we ended up doing on our vacation, this was actually the initial germ of an idea that started it all. Last year, we'd been to see musician-comedian Tim Minchin perform in Boulder. This guy is extraordinarily talented, devilishly clever, and hilariously funny. I don't think I've ever laughed as much or as hard at a live performance as I did seeing him that night.

So imagine our delight when we later learned that Tim Minchin had just done the music and lyrics for a brand new musical that had opened up in London. Adapted from the Roald Dahl book, Matilda debuted only late last year, and just a few months ago won seven Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tonys) -- setting a record in the process. Knowing there would be dozens of other things we could also do in London, we basically began building the trip around the idea that we could go see this new musical.

We had dinner in the area (at Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurant), and then settled in for a big West End theater production. From the moment we walked in the theater, it seemed sure to live up to the hype.

The entire proscenium was decorated with Scrabble-like letter tiles in a rainbow of colors, spilling out onto the walls and ceiling of the house. Hidden amongst the tiles were all sorts of random words (which, by the time of the intermission, you now realized were particularly important words appearing in the dialogue of the play). When we saw somebody else near us surreptitiously snapping a photo before the start of the second act -- without getting immediately bitch-slapped by an usher -- we snuck a few ourselves:

At the edge of the wings were cartoonishly styled bookshelves that, once the play began, would roll in and out to establish scenes. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. Walls, school desks, and more were revealed to be hiding in the floor, springing from well camouflaged trap doors to establish other scenes. All of it was bright and colorful.

The cast was exceptional. A group of adults playing the "older school children" were actually secondary to a cast of 9 actual children around 10-12 years of age playing the "younger children." It was the most talented group of young performers I could imagine assembling for live theater. The title role of Matilda is handled by four different young actresses that rotate from night to night, though I can't imagine the other three being better than the one we saw.

But the real scene stealing role was that of Miss Trunchbull, the wicked headmistress of young Matilda's school. The role is written to be played by a man, and was performed with relish by award winner Bertie Carvel. I learned after the fact that he had already announced he'd be leaving the role (which he originated) at the start of July, so we were actually among one of the last audiences to see him. Ruthless and hysterical, he made one of the most high-energy performances I've ever seen seem effortless, and thoroughly earned the standing ovation he received at the curtain call.

And then, of course, there was the element that drew our attention to the show in the first place, the music of Tim Minchin. Fantastic. All the witty wordplay of the songs he performs in his solo act is present in the tunes he crafted for this show. Particular highlights include: a "School Song" that intimidates the new school children with tortures they're about face, with lyrics that secretly have all the letters of the alphabet embedded inside without you even realizing it until the second repetition; a raucous samba number entitled "Loud" that delivers on its title both sonically and visually; and a spirited finale in "Revolting Children" that had the whole audience clapping along even before one of the characters prompted it.

But Tim Minchin has also produced a few tender and touching songs over his career (such as "Perfect" and "White Wine in the Sun"), and Matilda was a showcase for those songwriting skills as well. The resolute "Naughty" and second act opener "When I Grow Up" are certainly toe-tappers even while almost being tear-jerkers at the same time.

My boyfriend declared after the show that Matilda might just have been the best thing he's ever seen at the theater, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree, even after just having had the amazing experience of seeing Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe. The most telling thing about the evening was that, all day long, we were frankly more exhausted than either of us probably would have cared to admit. We'd enjoyed every minute of our vacation, but had already started talking the night before that we were honestly about ready for it to end. Matilda was not just entertaining, it was rejuvenating. We agreed that after seeing it, we felt a sudden rush of energy, and a feeling that we could now probably stay in London for another few days and be completely ready for more. Alas, that was not to be.

I would absolutely put Matilda on the "Must Do" List for anyone traveling to London. But the good news is that it won't be too much longer before you won't have to go all the way to London to see it. It was just recently confirmed that the production will be duplicated for Broadway in spring of 2013 -- and that the show will be keeping its British setting and content. If you live near New York, mark your calendar.

And that brings my stories of London to an end. As you've probably surmised from the great detail I've gone into recapping it, I thought it was an amazing trip. It was full of memories to last a lifetime.

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