LONDON — Smells like pre-teen spirit at the Cambridge Theater, where a throng of irresistibly fed-up boys and girls are storming the barricades of adult oppression. These newly armed, formerly downtrodden creatures have learned one of the first lessons of revolution: who owns the language has the power. And not just the anxieties of being a little kid who knows monsters are lurking under the bed. Oh, did I mention that giant artificial sun — a Tropicana-sponsored art project — that was installed in Trafalgar Square as a January pick-me-up for light-starved Londoners? Certainly one of the factors in the popularity of the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy of Arts is its radiant palette, which this artist deploys to transform his gray-toned native northern England into somewhere over the rainbow. It stays true to the tartness of Dahl, who reveled in the sinister and knew that children do too. Both feature little girls of unusual resourcefulness and determination, pitted against a demented institutional authority figure. Unlike Annie, Matilda Wormwood played by four actresses in rotation; it was Cleo Demetriou at the performance I saw is not an orphan. But she might as well be.
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As the five-time Tony Award-winning Matilda the Musical enters its final months here on Broadway and with the recent new addition of Bryce Ryness to the cast as the infamously cruel headmistress Agatha Trunchbull, we decided to revisit this adored British import to see if that Roald Dahl magic is still in abundance at the Shubert Theatre. So what is it about this show in particular that delights theatregoers young and old and has enabled such a lengthy run on Broadway? There are a few times in life when a creative team is put together and everything just seems to click. You have beloved source material from an author who continues to stand the test of time in a rapidly evolving world, you have some of the most entertainingly clever lyrics and a beautiful mix of light and dark melodies from the supremely talented comic composer Tim Minchin, and a Tony-winning book by Dennis Kelly, packed with universal gags and a clear message to young ones and the young-at-heart in the audience. Then there is the piece-de-resistance — the ingenious Tony-winning scenic design by Rob Howell who also provides those wonderfully cartoonish costumes. There is so much for the eye to feast upon in this set, which bursts with originality.
But Matilda, to whom adversity has taught stoicism, does not scream. Nor does she get all excited and throw her body around the stage in a frantic bid for attention. Instead, she determines to rewrite her life, to fix whatever is stupid and repellent and abrasive in it. She has more powerful tools on her side, in which she trusts unconditionally: intelligence and imagination. The same might be said of the show in which she appears, a British import brought to life by the Royal Shakespeare Company. You might say that they were stuck in old claustrophobic stories that were choking the life out of them. These included cynical narratives in which the presence of a movie star Jessica Chastain, Scarlett Johansson, Katie Holmes is thought to guarantee a happy ending. But at heart it is anything but loud.
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