NEW YORK — At tonight's Tony Awards, will the smartest little girl in the world beat out a pair of fetish footwear?
I hope so.
When "Matilda the Musical," based on the beloved story by Roald Dahl, opened on Broadway in April, it brought with it from London superb reviews and more Olivier awards — the British equivalent of the Tony Awards — than any musical in London history. Long before it even arrived in New York, "Matilda" was considered the Tony front-runner.
But then the amiable and glittering "Kinky Boots," based on a documentary film about a struggling English shoe factory that bounces back by shifting production to make specialty boots for drag queens, came along. And in the days leading up to the awards, some professional Tony handicappers are declaring the race for best musical too close to call. The New York Times thinks the winner will be "Boots" by a buckle.
Then again, trying to predict how the 864 eligible voters for the awards — which include actors, directors, producers and even tour presenters — will vote is fraught with silliness. Just like the Oscars, the voters are a mix of creative types and industry insiders. Trying to determine the "best" show is hard enough if you're debating aesthetic merits alone; adding the industry part of it, with all the nuances of box office appeal, muddies the waters even more.
There are two other nominees for best musical, by the way: "Bring it On" and "A Christmas Story," but I'd say the chances of either winning are about the same as the girl who plays Matilda walking out on stage wearing a pair of rhinestone-studded high-tops.
A special little girl
In terms of Broadway depicting children, the tone in "Matilda" is different than anything I've seen. It makes "Annie," the other big currently running musical about a fictional little girl, look like little more than an extended sentimental sugar high.
Sentimentality does exist in "Matilda," but it is doled out with the severity of a nutrition-minded mom offering a small dollop of whipped cream to top off a piece of pie; the small portion seems to taste even better because of its scarcity.
In this dark tale, the hyper-intelligent Matilda (played by four different girls on Broadway; I saw Milly Shapiro in the role) might be reading Dostoevsky at age 6, but her bumbling, anti-intellectual parents and a totalitarian school seem to thwart her every move.
The show is a marvel to behold, from the beautifully crafted tiled letters that fill every square inch of the front of the theater to the percussive lighting effects. (At one point, a giant "burp" becomes tangible, thanks to the lighting design, as we watch it travel to the front of the schoolroom and right up to the nostrils of the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, played by the splendid Bertie Carvel.) The staging is a wonder. And Tim Minchin's music and lyrics are so smart they almost hurt.
Young Shapiro impressed me with her deadpan wit and beautiful vocals in the title role, but even more is the presence of the eight other children who share the stage with her. They're kids, yes, but under the insightful direction of Matthew Warchus, each one seems to connect with a sliver of the adult stoicism that they themselves will no doubt experience in years to come, giving their portrayals a sort of spooky, timeless prescience.
"Matilda" doesn't parade the 10-levels-of-irony cynicism or whip out the deprecating, congratulatory self-awareness that fills so much of our popular entertainments today; it exists in that shadowy world between childhood and adulthood that I suspect has always pretty much remained the same regardless of how clever we try to be about it. I loved this show: I loved how it made me think, feel and remember.
Wise drag queen
I've read that some Broadway opinion leaders find "Matilda" too dark, however. They're more taken with "Kinky Boots" because it knows when to pour on the schmaltz, when to get crisp and restrained, and when to push its message of empowerment.
The premise is delightful: A small English shoe manufacturer falls on hard times, and when the disinterested son, Charlie Price (played by Stark Sands), inherits the company from his father, odds seem pretty high the place will have to close. Fortuitously, Charlie bumps into a gravelly drag queen named Lola (a stellar Billy Porter), who off-handedly remarks that the drag community could really use well-built boots. And thus a niche market is born — once Charlie can convince his factory workers to shift gears.
The first act of the show is terrific, with Harvey Fierstein's book landing laugh after laugh, and Cyndi Lauper's music and lyrics adding a fresh, tuneful charm. The second act dips a bit as Charlie turns into a bit of a pill. (This part of the storyline is a little overwrought.) And, let's face it, the idea of the brittle, aging drag queen dispensing wisdom about inclusion is getting a little worn as a trope.
But Jerry Mitchell's choreography and direction are snappy-sweet, the comedy is bright and the boots are fabulous, of course.
The Tony goes to ...
What's my prediction? It's tough because I really do want "Matilda" to win, and it's by far the more groundbreaking musical. But I have a feeling the winner will be "Kinky Boots," and if that happens — well, that's OK, too. It's nice to have two such strong contenders. And I can't wait for both to reach Fresno.
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.