Old-School School

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

I don't know if you remember . . . but being a kid can be terrifying: all those rules, all those inscrutable adults, all the new situations - kindergarten, reading, bullies. The magic of Roald Dahl's writing is that it captures those fears and anxieties and manages to confront them in complicated but satisfying narratives. You know Mr. Dahl's writing from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.

Mr. Dahl's novel Matilda was adapted into a musical by the Royal Shakespeare Company and now, after stopping in New York to pick up some Tony Awards, it's at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Matilda, of the title, is a fiercely precocious little girl (played with a forceful grace by Mia Sinclair Jenness on opening). She's on the cusp of kindergarten but she's already reading Dickens and she's nailed her 2-x-tables. The origin of these smarts is clearly not nurture. Said politely, her family is a little dim. Dad's a marvelously sleazy used car salesman trying to put one over on some Russians. Mom's a ballroom dancer who despises books. Her older brother, despite the "genius" sweatshirt, speaks in single, small words and is transfixed by the family's source of learning - the telly.

The family never even wanted Matilda. Her Dad insists she's a boy and everyone else can't be troubled.

Compounding Matilda's troubles, she's got to start school. Far from the 'Progressive or Traditional' debate that consumes privileged Los Angeles families, this is old-school school. Think brutal English boarding school. The headmistress Ms. Trunchbull, played brilliantly in drag by Bryce Ryness, is a former Olympic hammer thrower and the closest she comes to a term of endearment is calling the kids "little maggots."

You get the picture.

Of course there's a savior, sort of, in the aptly named Ms. Honey - who's the children's loving teacher. True to Mr. Dahl's writing, even Ms. Honey needs to be saved by Matilda.

Now, as you've guessed, this musical is crafted for kids and adults but it's not for the really little ones or the faint of heart. The production is billed as being for six years and up but I'd trust your gut if you think your child is easily frightened.

For the kids who are ready, Matilda is a joy. Almost half the cast is made up of a corps of nine to 12 year-olds who are fantastic but the real payoff is the young female heroine and the complication of the narrative. Mr. Dahl is a master of speaking to children rather than speaking down to them. And, if you're a parent of the 21st century, you'll appreciate the sentiment "that not everything has a happy ending."

A couple of caveats. First, you're not alone in not being able to understand the large ensemble numbers: the Ahmanson's acoustics, the accents, and some dodgy sound design conspire to make them all but unintelligible. Relax, let it wash over you, and enjoy the choreography. Second, this is certainly a musical for both adults and kids but it helps to be an adult who loves kids.

So if you've got a precocious youngster who's grappling with fitting in, bullies, and right and wrong, rush out and grab a ticket.

Matilda the Musical plays at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown through July 12.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Photo by Joan Marcus