Say What? Matilda the Musical Is Visually Stunning, Audibly Failing at the Winspear

The message of Matilda the Musical is that words have power. How awful then that at the London-to-Broadway-to-national-tour production that opened Thursday night at the Winspear Opera House the audience was powerless to understand most of the words coming off the stage.

It’s not a microphone issue; the actors are all miked up just fine. It’s not just bad mixing of sound between the many young voices onstage and the music from the orchestra pit, though at times the music does sound strangely muffled. (Acoustics in the Winspear are generally terrific for musicals.)

The problem in this show lies mainly with the performers’ diction. The kids in the cast, and there’s a bunch of them, are American, but they’re playing English moppets and they’ve been coached to squeal their lines in high-pitched, over-exaggerated Cockney accents. From the first of composer Tim Minchin’s songs, “Miracle,” to the last, “Revolting Children,” there’s barely a syllable that’s decipherable.

It’s like watching Chinese opera. Unless you already know the plot of Roald Dahl’s dystopian 1988 children’s story, about a precocious little girl with a love of books and the tyrannical adults who try to stop her from reading, this show has to be decoded by watching gestures and following scenery changes.

Diction has been a bugaboo with Matilda since it opened on Broadway in 2013, imported from the Royal Shakespeare Company. New York Times critic Ben Brantley gave the New York production a rapturous review, calling it “glorious” and “an exhilarating tale of empowerment.” But deep in his critique was this parenthetical caveat: “Though the child performers have mastered their English accents nicely, they need to strengthen their diction, the better to put across Mr. Minchin’s tasty lyrics.” More recently, LA critics mentioned weird enunciation troubles in their reviews of this national tour.

Director Matthew Warchus and voice director Andrew Wade not only haven’t solved the diction dilemma over the past two years, it seems to have worsened on the road. If the kids on Broadway “mastered” their English dialects, what this touring cast is speaking doesn’t sound like the English spoken on any continent.

In the title role, tiny Mia Sinclair Jenness (alternating with Gabby Gutierrez and Mabel Tyler), squeaks lyrics and dialogue in a sort of forced dolphinese, shouting the first syllable of every unintelligible word and garbling the rest. Long sequences where Matilda tells the school librarian (Ora Jones, using a Jamaican accent, which also doesn’t help) a made-up story about an acrobat and an escape artist sound like she’s talking about an “automat” and “a scarf party.”

Playing Matilda’s champion, shy teacher Miss Honey, Jennifer Blood is about 50-50 on the “What did she just say?” scale. Quinn Mattfeld, playing Matilda’s idiot dad, can be understood fairly well except when singing. The slatternly mom, played by Cassie Silva, squeals higher than Jenness. Young Kaci Walfall, as schoolkid Lavender, could be speaking Klingon. Ditto Evan Gray as Bruce, the boy made to eat a whole chocolate cake before headmistress Miss Trunchbull sends him to “The Chokey,” Dahl’s version of the prison sweat box from Cool Hand Luke.

Opening night curtain call applause was thunderous for grown-up actor Bryce Ryness, who dominates deliciously as the fearsome Trunchbull. The role is Annie’s Miss Hannigan crossed-dressed with Nicholas Nickleby’s villainous schoolmaster Wackford Squeers. Hair greased into a tight bun, skinny legs supporting the torso of a T-Rex, Ryness is one of the few in Matilda whose way with words is not just loud enough but clear enough, both singing and speaking. His/her big number, “The Smell of Rebellion,” choreographed around a torturous phys-ed class that has the children jumping and rolling all over the stage, is the highlight simply because you can make out every bit of it.

To be sure it wasn’t just my old ears at fault, Matilda’s sound engineer was asked about the problem during intermission Thursday night. “We’re aware of it,” he said. Would wearing one of the Winspear’s headsets for the hearing impaired make it all easier to understand? Nope. We asked a couple who were wearing them. They couldn’t make heads or tails of words and lyrics either.

Tickets to Matilda are expensive, $95 and up except for the uppermost balconies. And it’s a long show, coming in around two hours and 40 minutes. It’s definitely a lovely show to look at: big scenery (covered with words and alphabet blocks), big moments of spectacle as the children fly over the stage on rope swings, big dance numbers by choreographer Peter Darling (reminiscent of Bill T. Jones’ herky-jerky dance style for Spring Awakening).

What a great show this would be if most of the performers didn’t sound like the “wah-WAH-wah” voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Matilda the Musical continues through October 4 at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Tickets $30-$120 at 214-880-0202 or tickets.attpac.org.

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