Poor diction makes musical ‘Matilda’ hard to understand

One of the first rules of any kind of sharing in the theater is accessibility and sadly, a good deal
Gabby Pizzolo performs in "Matilda the Musical."
Gabby Pizzolo performs in "Matilda the Musical."

SCHENECTADY — One of the joys of live theater is its communal energy and spirit — masses of people connecting and sharing a piece of art or entertainment together. And if you are lucky, at intermission you get to overhear some of what others are experiencing.

At “Matilda: The Musical,” it didn’t sound good: “I thought this show was supposed to be performed in English.” And “This thing could really use supertitles.”

One of the first rules of any kind of sharing in the theater is accessibility and sadly, a good deal of “Matilda: The Musical” is inaccessible. The show taunts with its stunning production design, tuneful score and engaging cast. But unless you are already familiar with the story, the evening will be nothing but a trip to visually charming and tuneful musical — all performed in foreign language.

‘Matilda: The Musical’

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: Through Sunday

HOW MUCH: $90-$20

MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org

The problem is not with the sound designers; the mix is fine. Vocals are well balanced against the orchestra, which is bright and strong under the baton of Matthew Smedal. And I am ruling out the aging of the audience. I just had my hearing checked last month.

The problem is diction, mostly the children’s diction. And there are a lot of children in this show.

When you have pre-teen kids relating a heightened emotional story, singing and dancing, and using a working-class British accent you will have some issues. And in the words of our heroine — some of the few I was able to decipher — “That’s not right.”

Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, the story, from what little I could discern, has to do with a precocious and plucky 5-year-old who finds haven from her bullying and braying parents in the world of books and learning.

While taking refuge in the library, Matilda entertains Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, with a story — one that Mrs. Phelps certainly found captivating — but gets lost in translation when pushed over the footlights. The story comes to life each time Matilda tells Mrs. Phelps a chapter or two, so that helps a bit.

The costumes indicate that the story might have something to do with people at a circus. Or a puppet show. And it had feathers.

When Matilda isn’t at the library or at home, she is at school where she is terrorized by the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull (a hilariously maleficent Bryce Ryness) and soothed by her warm and caring teacher Miss Honey (performed by the lovely Jennifer Blood). That’s what I got, but I am quite sure there is more to the story.

Three little girls rotate in and out of the role of Matilda. At Wednesday night’s show, the wee dynamo Tori Feinstein performed the dickens out of the role. Not only does she have a strong set of pipes, she appeared to be a force with which to be reckoned, standing strong with her arms akimbo packed with just the perfect amount of pluck and determination. Charlie Kersh’s rambunctious turn as Matilda’s bestie Lavender is fun, as is Evan Gray’s bumptious Bruce and Cal Alexander’s narcoleptic Nigel.

In fact all the kids performed well. I just couldn’t understand most of what they were saying.

Diction issues aside, the score by Tim Minchin is a treat. Act II’s “When I Grow Up”, memorably staged by director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling, proves a perfect anthem of childhood wishes. And the show closing “Revolting Children” is an energetic, house raising party full of truths. Also amusing are Miss Trunchbull’s musical numbers “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion.”

Toward the end of the evening, when Matilda speaks fluent Russian with a mafia don, I was relived to discover that Matilda was, indeed, speaking a foreign language. Brilliantly, I might add.

Off to the library now to see if I can find a copy of the book so I can decipher what I saw in the theater. If I’m lucky, I’ll run into Matilda and she can tell me the story she told Mrs. Phelps. I’d love to know what the librarian found so captivating.

Categories: Entertainment

Leave a Reply