If there’s one lesson to take away from Roald Dahl’s Matilda, it’s that you should never underestimate a five-year-old with a taste for Dostoevsky. Similarly, it’d be best not to judge Matilda: The Musical as mere Broadway fare for juniors. What might at first glance look like a kids-only outing, and a real drag for parents, turns out to be one of the decade’s most revered and culturally relevant musicals.

Based upon Roald Dahl’s classic tale of a prodigious and plucky whiz kid, Matilda: The Musical has been wowing critics since its London inception in 2011. In 2013, Time magazine deemed it “The best musical since The Lion King” and famed New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.” Seeing that this play hails from the same roots as musicals like Les Miserables and theatre masters like Andrew Lloyd Weber, this hardly comes across as weak praise.

Now after four years, Matilda will be making its first trek to TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall, and for one week only audiences will finally be able to fully appreciate what makes Matilda such a special experience.

Matilda tells the tale of Matilda Wormwood, a brilliant but mischievous six-year-old who’s stuck with a vain, TV-guzzling family that refuses to understand her love for learning. They have trouble even recognizing she’s a girl!

Matilda’s life is made even more intolerable when she begins attending the prison-like school Crunchem Hall, ran by the hunch-backed tyrant Mrs. Trunchbull, who has a rather inscrutable hatred of little children. Her motto: ‘Children are maggots.’ To survive this academic inferno, Matilda must use her ingenious wits and forthcoming bravery to overcome a society of constant oppression and cynicism.

With its manic energy, deftly crafted songs, and colorful, labyrinthine sets, Matilda offers a charm and complexity that would make Annie hang her head in shame. But what one might not expect from Matilda is its subversive relevance. It’s a tale about overcoming adversity, and about harnessing intelligence and courage to combat seemingly impossible odds. And according to cast-member Jaquez Lee Simms, who plays a flamboyant ball-room dancer named Rudolpho in the play, these are invaluable lessons for today’s world.

Matilda teaches you how to be a bold and forthcoming individual,” said Simms. “It’s about education and awareness. As a world dealing with constant threats of terrorist attacks, generational apathy, and emotional impulsiveness, we’ve come to a point where we need to think more with our brains than with our emotions. And Matilda teaches us how to do that.”

Typical of anything related to Roald Dahl, Matilda is as malevolent a musical as it is sweet, coated with a litany of grim scenes other plays centered on child leads wouldn’t dare to show. Children are verbally assaulted, a poor girl is flung by her pig tails off the stage, and then there’s that horrifying, rotten-toothed principal, Mrs. Trunchbull, whose hobbies include child flinging and fashioning creative insults, such as “stand up you little spitball.”

But no one ever said being a kid was easy, and according to Simms, Matilda’s scariness might actually be helpful for younger kids in the long term. “Fear is a feeling that we all have, and it’s something that we will all eventually have to deal with,” said Simms. “But Matilda teaches us how to deal with that fear, and that if you harness that fear in just the right way, you can take it and turn it into an incredible opportunity. Reality is scary, and I think it’s important for kids to learn that at an early age.”

Still it wouldn’t be unwise for parents to take caution when deciding whether or not Matilda is too much for their younger children.

Performances of Matilda: The Musical will be held from January 26th to the 31st at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) in Andrew Jackson Hall. Tickets begin at $80. Further information about Matilda, including ticket prices and times, can be viewed at TPAC’s website or on Matildathemusical.com.

Photo of Gabby Gutierrez (as Matilda) by Joan Marcus

 

 

 

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