‘Matilda’ is a victory for imagination

Behold the power of the alphabet. A splendid touring production of “Matilda the Musical,” now at the Fox Theatre through Nov. 1, celebrates the power of imagination as it unfolds the inspiring tale of a magical little girl.

Extolling the virtues of words and stories, this British award-winner turned Broadway sensation is life-affirming, despite its sometimes dreary and dismal situations. Hey, even fairy tales have their dark sides, right?

As those who escaped childhood horrors by losing themselves in books can attest, this musical, adapted from Roald Dahl’s novel, emphasizes what a joyous and safe haven literature can be for mistreated youngsters. Well, for that matter, all those who are curious.

Matilda is one such young lady. At Thursday’s performance, Mabel Tyler was sweet and strong as the bright 5-year-old whose crass parents withhold love, affection and nurturing. The awful Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are played broadly comical, and quite loudly, by Justin Packard and Cassie Silva.

The verbal hostility, such as Dad calling precious Matilda “a nasty little creep,” is tough to hear, but knowing that she is warmly loved by her teacher, Miss Honey (a superb Jennifer Blood), as well as the school chums who admire her smarts and pluck, helps.

Spinning yarns and reading, Matilda also spends hours with librarian Mrs. Phelps, warmly played by Ora Jones.

The major villain is thoroughly despicable headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a cartoonish character typically played by a cross-dressing man. Bryce Ryness delves into the exaggerated fascist dictator-aspect with gusto and has fun with his severe wardrobe — and ample chest.

His head held high as the boastful hammer-throwing champion of Britain, the tyrannical ruler wears outlandish clothes and treats all schoolchildren poorly. “The Smell of Rebellion” is chilling. What else would you expect from an educator who refers to children as “maggots”?

The exuberant youth ensemble is remarkable — outstanding examples of triple-threats (singers, dancers and actors) at such a young age. Their grand finale “Revolting Children” bursts with energy and defiance, highlighted by Peter Darling’s clever choreography.

The role of Matilda is shared by three girls on this first national tour. Tyler is a special talent playing this extra-special girl, charming us with her inherent goodness. Her numbers “Quiet” and “Naughty” are heartbreaking.

One of the show’s best numbers is the touching “When I Grow Up,” led by Miss Honey, whose decency and kindness offsets the horrible and buffoonish adults.

Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian and musician, composed the tuneful music and lyrics, and it mainly has a cheeky tone. “Miracle,” critical of hovering parents who raise entitled children, is an interesting opening number.

But there are songs with powerful emotional moments too. He stays true to the source material’s impish nature as well.

Dennis Kelly’s adaptation features a considerable amount of humor, and the more eccentric the character, the more laughs they get.

The technical aspects are a hands-down “Wow.” They include the Tony-winning set design by Rob Howell, whimsically expressing the power of words and the enchantment of language, including an eclectic visual delight of bright colors, and an astute lighting design, also a Tony winner, by Hugh Vanstone.

Just as in Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” winsome children triumph over adults behaving badly, and pure imagination is revered.

“Matilda” harnesses the power of little voices, rewarding hearts of gold. Judging from the roars and cheers of the audience, this disarming, delightful show struck a chord and rekindled wonder.

“Matilda the Musical”

  • When: Oct. 21- Nov. 1, evening performances, 7:30; Sundays, 6:30 p.m.
  • Were: The Fox Theatre, 527 N. Grand, St. Louis
  • Metrotix: 314-534-1111, or Fox Box Office
  • www.fabulousfox.com