Credit: Handout photo by Joan Marcus

Words are the big losers in two musicals about book lovers. Both the tour of Matilda the Musical and the Broadway-bound Bright Star were latecomers to the District’s over-crowded field of seasonal fare. Granted, Bright Star has been onstage for weeks, but it’s a new show, so the press wasn’t allowed in until Dec. 17. In other words, if you already bought tickets for the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical, please don’t blame the critics. For those who have already seen Matilda on Broadway, I’m here for belated validation: Good decision.

Amplified sound always tends to get muddy in the Kennedy Center Opera House, but I’ve never heard a show sound worse than Matilda. You may catch the opening-number refrain of “My Mommy Says,” but not much of what the kids are singing beyond that. The lyrics incude something about a miracle, which is what the Opera House sound techs need. There seems to be a combination of problems: a cast of children attempting exaggerated English accents; offstage singing that’s out of sync; and then the ongoing challenge of amplifying actors and instruments in a hall designed for pianissimo violins and belting sopranos.

Matilda opened on Broadway in March 2013. Hopefully all the folks in D.C. with kids who desperately wanted to see the musical have long since made the trip to New York, or better yet, have flown to London, where the show based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book has been running since 2011. Heck, you can appreciate clever numbers like “When I Grow Up” more on YouTube videos than you can hearing them live at the Kennedy Center.

Which is not to say that the touring Matilda is devoid of any live-theater magic. The sets (by Rob Howell) are like a super-cool 3D Scrabble board, an appropriate playground for the book-loving Matilda Wormwood. Three pre-teen girls take turns playing the pint-sized heroine, the erudite daughter of a used-car salesman and a big-haired Latin ballroom dancer. In Act 1, Matilda’s plight is simply that she’s a preternaturally intelligent little girl with parents who rip up her library books. Off to Miss Agatha Trunchbull’s school she goes, where a kind teacher takes an interest in Matilda, but the headmistress (or headmaster, as it’s a cross-dressing role) is determined to demoralize “all the little maggots.” It’s not until Act 2 that the plot starts to percolate, and that leaves the musical feeling both overstuffed and a little rushed.

Dahl’s book was one of several of a 1980s wave of young adult telekinesis fiction. (For the record, The Girl With the Silver Eyes was my favorite from the genre.) The stagecraft used to depict Matilda’s supernatural abilities is impressive—there should be more of it. Instead, the magic is overshadowed by a subplot involving a local librarian and a fanciful backstory about Miss Honey (the kindly teacher) and her deceased circus performer parents. This is a children’s musical based on a book by the guy who gave the world Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A world of pure imagination comes with the theatrical territory.

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