Broadway tour of Matilda the Musical brings the endearingly twisted wit of Roald Dahl to the Straz Center

The winner of four Tony Awards continues its run through Sunday. Review by Julie Garisto.

Matilda the Musical, a Dickensian-lite tale of a young genius who uses the power of her mind to defy unfortunate circumstances, can be seen through Sunday at the Straz Center of Performing Arts in downtown Tampa.

From its first note, the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel charms with ear-wormy Oliver!-style anthems and darkly cartoonish characters, like those in Tim Burton (Nightmare Before Christmas) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children) movies. Skewed Scrabble tiles pile high in a surreal backdrop as a mostly young cast entertains with impeccable choreography and vocal harmonies.

Matilda the Musical follows the childhood of precocious and imaginative British girl born to boorish parents (Quinn Mattfield and Cassie Silva) who horribly mistreat her. Their crass neglect and verbal abuse, and the scowling and ridiculously mean headmistress of Matilda’s school (portrayed hilariously by male actor David Abeles) are over-the-top funny.

The show’s star Lily Brooks O’Brient belted out admirably in the title role. (The actress alternates dates with Sarah McKinley Austin in the title role.) Jennifer Blood as sweet Miss Honey gives the show’s most heart-rending turn and also gives a mighty vocal performance. The only disappointment performance-wise is that we don’t see more of Jamaican librarian Mrs. Phelps (Esther Antoine).

Matilda‘s adorably talented ensemble of schoolchildren make the musical a must-see for families and anyone who grew up reading Dahl books. The show rouses with a spirited rebellion and mischievous defiance of a miserable status quo — and a tongue-in-cheek dash of satire Dahl fans have enjoyed in classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. The verbal cleverness of Dahl is abbreviated in the theater version, of course, but the musical has more heart than the film adaptation starring Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

Sound technical issues marred Wednesday night’s production at the Straz’s Morsani Hall. Volume and high-end distortion made the British accents a little tougher to follow.

Future audiences should be dazzled by the special effects in Matilda the Musical. Pyrotechnic lights, explosive sounds and a beautiful silhouetted cut-out animation are some of the show’s highlights. There’s one more audience-involved complement, but I won’t give that away. The surprise is too special (and colorful).

The orchestral score is a star of the show that deserves mention. The tunes are catchy and incorporate gypsy jangle and classic melodies — one even rocks.

Sadly, the book feels somewhat slapdash. This touring production is a little too long, like so many of Broadway’s family-friendly, commercially driven productions these days. Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers (!), it could use some serious tightening up.

Some takeaways : You can always rewrite your own story, everyone needs a little love and tenderness, and perhaps, most relevant, ignorance should never be tolerated from our authority figures.

Also, I’d be remiss not to mention Tampa’s Event Show Productions performers (inspired by Matilda’s imagination) who perform outside the lobby pre-show. They were a surprising treat.

Click here for showtimes and ticket info. 

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