Annie and Cinderella know plenty about evil grown-ups, as Broadway has been telling us in this season of plucky musical heroines. But neither has had to deal with the daft adult meanies who loom over the 5-year-old title character -- and telekinetic genius -- in "Matilda: The Musical."
And deal she definitely does, in this inventive and cartoon-sinister London musical, which has barreled into town with its record seven Olivier Awards to strike terror in the demographic base of little-girl theatergoers.
The show, adapted from Roald Dahl's mordant 1988 children's book, is a surprisingly low-tech pleasure from the same Royal Shakespeare Company that blew up "Les Misérables" into a mega-spectacle. Director Matthew Warchus, a master of character-defining physical comedy, has put big handfuls of tiny gifted actors and monstrous authority figures into Rob Howell's relatively simple set of Scrabble-like alphabet tiles and towers of bookshelves.
The problem, at least at Tuesday's preview, is a lack of auditory clarity. Oona Laurence, one of four teeny talents who alternate playing the British Matilda, is a marvelous, subtle young actress with a serious scowl on her delicate face and the ability to dominate the entire action-packed production with her self-reliant, yet still childlike power. But I had to strain to understand too much of what she and several other castmates were yelling, a special frustration given Dennis Kelly's word-loving dialogue and composer Tim Minchin's deliriously articulate lyrics.
Matilda Wormwood is the unwanted child of moronic blue-collar parents -- a ballroom dance-crazy mother played by Lesli Margherita and a crooked car-salesman father who, as embodied by Gabriel Ebert, moves like a vaudeville-inspired bundle of pipe cleaners.
But the major terror is Miss Trunchbull, the gorgon head mistress of Matilda's oppressive school, a former hammer-throwing champion who does the same to wayward children. Bertie Carvel, who created his Olivier-winning character in London, delivers no-nonsense nonsense, a gigantic no-neck monster with a whistle and virtuosic timing.
Lauren Ward has winning lyricism as Miss Honey, the good teacher who befriends Matilda, who reads great books and tells fantasy stories about doting parents. Peter Darling's choreography works wonders with tiny bodies, a few swings and an homage to the repressed teens in "Spring Awakening." But when characters bellow "the less you have to sell, the louder you yell it," you may wish you could hear the clever words over the din.
WHAT "Matilda: The Musical"
WHERE Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.
INFO $32-$147; 212-239-6200; matildathemusical.com
BOTTOM LINE Inventive and sinister pleasure, despite auditory problems