The new Broadway musical “Matilda,” based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s fantasy novel, was originally conceived by the Royal Shakespeare Company as family-friendly Christmastime entertainment, not unlike the cheesy and overly sentimental shows that flood New York each holiday season.
But it turned out to be an incredibly intelligent, heartfelt and entertaining work that went on to achieve critical and popular success in London and now arrives on Broadway like a white knight sent to rescue a disappointing season for new musicals.
The story, which was also adapted into a 1996 film, observes a free thinking young girl who, after forming a strong friendship with a nurturing teacher, finally stands up to her boorish parents and fiendish school principal.
Singer-songwriter Tim Minchin’s unique and unpredictable score is as character-sensitive and penetrating as it is melodic and memorable.
Matthew Warchus’ (“God of Carnage”) inventive production does not shy away from depicting Matilda’s peers as unashamedly self-indulgent and the world around them as garish and threatening.
The set is dominated by wooden tiles containing different letters of the alphabet that resemble giant Scrabble pieces. Aisles have been added around the front rows so that the cast can glide throughout the theater.
Just like the three boys who shared the title role in “Billy Elliot,” four girls alternate playing Matilda. Bailey Ryon, who played the role at the Saturday matinee I attended, gave a nuanced, spunky performance that more than captured the character’s determined spirit and vulnerability.
Bertie Carvel, who was brought over from the London production, gives a delightfully exaggerated performance as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull.
“Matilda” plays an open run at the Shubert Theatre. 212-239-6200, matildathemusical.com.