How Dark and weird is "Matilda," the Tony-glomming musical playing through Nov. 29 at the Academy of Music? Dark enough that the emotional and physical abuse of children is presented in a most enthusiastic, designed-for-laughs manner, and the deaths of several characters, including a pregnant acrobat figure in a significant way in this ostensible tale for kids.
And weird enough that both telekinesis and the Russian Mafia make appearances in the program's last 15 or so minutes.
But somehow, "Matilda," based on the beloved book by British author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), manages to be inventive, interesting and even entertaining, despite its emphasis on themes like psychological terrorism (Matilda's apparently sociopathic father refuses to accept his daughter isn't male), general familial dysfunction and mortality.
The best reasons to see "Matilda," set in some British alternative universe, is the cast, which certainly plays things to the hilt.
It doesn't take a professor of musical theater to figure out that any production of "Matilda" rests squarely on the tiny shoulders of the young girls who play the title role. This bus-and-truck production boasts three - count 'em three - pint-sized actresses. If the other two are as solid as Wednesday night's star, Mabel Tyler, then it shouldn't matter what performance you attend.
Miss Tyler was wholly believable and natural as the unwanted, unloved and supernaturally intelligent moppet whose childhood shares many traits with those of convicted serial killers. She also displayed a trunk-full of performing talents, acting, singing and dancing with nuance and gusto.
However, in a nice bit of theatrical irony, it wasn' the kid who stole the show, but one of the adult principals. As the thoroughly heinous school headmistress Miss Trunchbull Bryce Ryness (yes, the part is played by a guy in drag), dominates the proceedings. His over-the-top character sucks the oxygen out of the room during her every scene and commands the spotlight in two of the show's most indelible numbers, "The Hammer" and "The Smell of Rebellion."
On a personal note, I am convinced the character is based on my third-grade teacher, with whom Trunchbull shares a 1950s-prison-matron fashion sense and educational philosophy (as Trunchbull puts it, "To teach the child, you must break the child").
As Matilda's parents, the Wormwoods, Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva ably portray the most comically reprehensible husband-wife team since the Thenardiers last lit up a production of "Les Miserables." Jennifer Blood acquits herself admirably as Miss Honey, the kindly teacher who is Matilda's only adult advocate (and the play's most two-dimensional character).
And enough can't be said about the youngsters of the ensemble. They keep "Matilda" animated and engaging from the jump, especially through Peter Darling's herky-jerky, often acrobatic choreography. ("The Smell of Rebellion" features a good deal of gymnastics.)
It's all kept under control by director Matthew Warchus, who makes fine use of Rob Howell's stylized, vivid set.
Tim Minchin's score doesn't function in the traditional way: Songs don't always propel the story in a linear direction. Instead, they often serve as individual production numbers which, in aggregate, fit and fill in the plot.
"Matilda" isn't typical holiday-season fare, but it's certainly well-done and will reward those seeking something a little different.
Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, 8 tonight, 2 and 8 p.m. tomorrow and Nov. 28, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 29, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, $20-$125 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.
If you missed "Book of Mormon" during its initial Forrest Theatre run last fall, you have another shot. The crude, rude and profane Broadway juggernaut by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and composer Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q") returns Tuesday and runs through Dec. 27. Christmas maggots anyone?
I still haven't figured out why "Book of Moron" (as I like to call it) is such a smash, having found it about as entertaining as an autopsy. But millions would beg to differ, so go see for yourself.
Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St., show times vary, $67-$152, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.
While the focus this time of year tends to be on lighter, musical fare, those looking for a serious dose of American history are pointed in the direction of the Bristol Riverside Theatre, where "Mountain: The Journey of Justice Douglas" is playing through Sunday.
"Mountain" is a biography of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whose often-controversial tenure on the nation's highest court stretched from 1939 to 1975, making him the longest-serving Supreme in history.