When the book Matilda came out in 1988, when I was in elementary school, it was a brand-new Roald Dahl book at the height of my Dahl phase — the first (and probably the last) time I felt like I had my hand on the pulse of literature. The book about a young genius whose parents and school headmistress try to crush her spirit quickly became one of my favorites, as I latched on to its empathy for those who enjoy school for the sake of it, and its argument for creativity and storytelling over memorization. In hindsight, it's perhaps the reason why I half-heartedly tried to start a sixth-grade rebellion against tedious homework.
Nowadays, it's hard to imagine anyone in Los Angeles disputing Matilda's ethos, when “creative” is a business-world cliché, as is the idea that nerds are the new cool. But the fantastical, fairy-tale quality of musicals favors the universal, and Matilda: The Musical — now in its tour stop at the Ahmanson Theatre while still running in London and Broadway — makes these classic concerns feel relevant.
The best parts of the show are the children's chorus numbers by Tim Minchin, such as “Revolting Children” and “When I Grow Up,” which capture our tendency as children to not know what you don't know and not care because it doesn't matter yet anyway. The show's jokes often aren't as funny as Dennis Kelly's script thinks they are, though they gradually get better (and humor that appeals to both adults and kids can be an impossible bull's-eye).
As the often-detached protagonist (played on opening night by Mia Sinclair Jenness) piles one talent upon another, she's in danger of seeming overly good, a symbol of purity, though thankfully that's undercut by Dahl's decision to make her a rebellious imp, embodied nicely in her recurring theme song, “Naughty.” And while Matilda is one of Dahl's sweeter stories, it's fun to see his trademark surrealism shine through, as when Miss Trunchbull (played by a man, Bryce Ryness), the over-the-top evil headmistress and former Olympic hammer-throwing champion, forces a child to eat a whole cake.
When education remains a mess of seemingly unanswerable questions involving testing and unions, it's refreshing to see a story that reminds us of some basic tenets, such as fanning a creative flame, reaching out to a child in need and just enjoying what it is to be a teacher — and a student — in the first place. Notions such as these are what make the show so touching.
GO! Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through July 12. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.