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Matilda at PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh

This is a tiny show distended and glitz-engorged beyond all reason

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Outside the Benedum Center, for the first national tour of hit Broadway musical Matilda, they’ve posted a quote from one of the New York reviews: “The Best Musical Since The Lion King.” I agree … if you substitute “most disheartening” for “best.”

In a funny way, it’s unfair to blame Matilda for its problems. Taken from Roald Dahl’s contemporary children’s classic, with a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, Matilda is what it is — a cute children’s show about a precocious little girl in England who, though hated by her parents and terrorized by her headmistress, soldiers on with the sort of plucky, can-do spirit that helped Britain rule the globe for a couple of centuries. “Believe in yourself,” the show says, “and don’t let others bring you down.” All in all, not a bad message for kids … who are normally told that if they want to be liked, they need to buy something.

The trouble is that someone threw millions of dollars at this little piece of fluff and inflated it to the size of one of those Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons, which it resembles in hollowness and artificiality.

The show’s villains are ridiculously evil — although Darcy Stewart, Brandon McGibbon and David Abeles locate and play the humor to fun effect. The heroes are so sweet and pure that it beggars belief, but Keisha T. Fraser and Paula Brancati are moving and joyful when they get the chance. And the title character is like Annie (from the musical of the same name) only on steroids, speed and crack. The performer rotates nightly; I saw a charmingly stubborn Lily Brooks O’Briant.

I credit director Matthew Warchus for some very imaginative staging, which occasionally tries to work against the usual over-the-top musical-theater pyrotechnics. But still, as produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Dodgers (and presented by PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh), this is a tiny show distended and glitz-engorged beyond all reason. The results are … well, my date for the evening called it “torturous.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a listless and glum couple of hours.

You can’t blame Matilda for the juvenilizing of Broadway, but it’s as much a victim as we are.


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