“Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick!” From the first page of Roald Dahl’s classic short novel Matilda (1988), you know you’re in for subversion. Right off the bat, listening to parents gloat about their “exceptional” offspring, the narrator threatens to heave. This isn’t the usual earnest kid stuff.
Matilda relates the story of Matilda Wormwood, a five-year-old English girl who is indeed rather exceptional, especially when it comes to exacting revenge on an adult world that has punished her for daring to read hard books and ask hard questions. It helps that Matilda develops telekinetic powers, as if she were a pintsize Ricky Jay, or Eloise at the Plaza with an assist from Stephen King.
Dahl’s book begs to be read aloud. Its voices leap from the page, and Matilda has inspired multiple adaptations. The BBC made a two-part radio program starring Lauren Mote as the precocious Matilda. Danny DeVito turned the book into a (very good) feature film in 1996. Kate Winslet, who narrates the official audiobook, is clearly enjoying herself.
There have been theatrical adaptations, too—most notably a hit 2010 musical, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which moved to Broadway in 2013. This Matilda, with a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, ran for nearly four years in New York. It won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Ben Brantley, the New York Times drama critic, called it “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda is being revived in America’s heartland this summer, in a new production at the Muny, in St. Louis. Now in its 101st season, the Muny is America’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theater. Its annual season, under artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson, runs from mid-June to mid-August, and the shows have an old-school, MGM vibe—sets, costumes, music, everything coming together as the curtain goes up. It is well worth a detour to drop in.
The Broadway version of Matilda had a crisp, eerie, almost icy vibe. The stage was awash in cool blues and grays. In St. Louis, the musical’s director, John Tartaglia, who’s admired Dahl’s novel since he was young, hopes to warm the material up a bit. “This is a musical, in many regards, about the desire to connect,” Tartaglia says. “Matilda, like every kid, wants to feel she belongs.”
One way he plans to underscore this musical’s heart, as well as its wit, is to employ sets inspired by the work of a St. Louis legend, the graphic artist and children’s-book illustrator Mary Engelbreit. Her stuff is bright, whimsical, a bit surreal.
“I love this material because Roald Dahl never talked down to kids,” Tartaglia says. “He wasn’t shy. He always went there.” —Dwight Garner