Rejoice, my theatergoing comrades. The children’s revolution has arrived on these shores, and it is even more glorious than we were promised. Rush now, barricade stormers of culture, to the Shubert Theater, and join the insurrection against tyranny, television, illiteracy, unjust punishment and impoverished imaginations, led by a 5-year-old La Pasionaria with a poker face and an off-the-charts I.Q.
“Matilda the Musical,” the London import that opened on Thursday night, is the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain, where it was nurtured into life by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In many ways this production would seem to be an example of show business as usual: It’s inspired by a book (the children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl) which was turned into a movie (in 1996). And in its melding of song, dance and story it’s as classic as “Oklahoma!”
But within its traditional form “Matilda” works with astonishing slyness and grace to inculcate us with its radical point of view. “Matilda,” you see, is about words and language, books and stories, and their incalculable worth as weapons of defense, attack and survival. It’s about turning the alphabet into magic, and using it to rule the world.
If I have made “Matilda” sound like a self-important “Sesame Street,” then I’ve led you astray. As directed by Matthew Warchus, with a bright, efficient book by Dennis Kelly and addictive songs by Tim Minchin, “Matilda” is as much an edge-of-the-seats nail biter as a season-finale episode of “Homeland.”
Above all it’s an exhilarating tale of empowerment, as told from the perspective of the most powerless group of all. I mean little children. Brilliantly designed by Rob Howell and lighted by Hugh Vanstone, with choreography to match by Peter Darling (“Billy Elliot”), “Matilda” captures the particular dread that runs like an icy rivulet through even the happiest childhoods. You know what I mean: the nagging awareness of the monster under the bed, the bully on the bus, the first day of school and the teacher who lurks there to make your life a humiliating hell.