Roald Dahl's Matilda is known and loved around the world. There have been successful interpretations of the whimsical children's story – from the 1996 film starring Danny DeVito to the recent Netflix production of its stage musical version.
Keen to take the story into an entirely new domain, Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly teamed up to create a widely successful musical adaptation more than a decade ago.
But while these creative minds do the heavy lifting, it's up to the production to breathe new life into the story, relive the magic on stage and most of all deliver on the ambitious demands of the source material.
The show, which is currently on at the Dubai Opera, hits the sweet spot.
It follows the story of Matilda, a gifted girl with a vast imagination cultivated by her love of reading books. She is challenged by negligent parents and a tyrannical school headmistress.
Immediately, the stage catches the eye, with a bright and colourful set design. It looks like a scrabble board, with a jumble of wooden tiles of different sizes. The “chaos” of the blocks is a good prelude to the emotional roller coaster the audience is about to embark on.
Kelly's adaptation sticks closely to Dahl's narrative arc, but the stage version has added a depth that has turned it into a show that everyone can enjoy; not just little ones, but adults, too.
There's no better way to open the show than with Miracle, which introduces the audience to one of the more complex themes explored in the show: parenthood. Matthew Rowland and Emily Squibb, who play Matilda's repugnant parents, are a delight throughout, receiving some of the loudest cheers from the crowd.
As expected, the star of the show is Matilda, played by Yolani Balfour. The charm of the musical is the young cast, who effortlessly recite lines and perform choreographed routines. Even the need to take the stage night after night, and sometimes in daytime matinees, doesn't affect their energy.
Balfour's portrayal of the indomitable heroine is right on the money. The mixture of playfulness, strength and vulnerability is hard to pull off, but she does it with utmost professionalism. She particularly shines in Naughty and When I Grow Up, but struggles to hit some of the high notes in Quiet – forgivably so due to it's emotional context.
The best performance of the night is shared by Gemma Scholes's Miss Honey, the empathetic teacher with struggles of her own, and the villainous Miss Trunchbull, played by James Wolstenholme.
Both performers use ingenious interpretations of their characters, especially Wolstenholme, who gives the evil headmistress a spirited portrayal without being too much of a caricature. Her performance is not monotonous, with the subtle character journey smartly shown off in The Hammer in the first act, and The Smell of Rebellion in the second.
This dynamic performance is also present in Scholes's charming take on Miss Honey. Her nuances are compelling, from being timid and afraid during the first half of the show to mustering courage towards the end. Her voice is piercing with a technical grit most evident in My House.
Minchin's music and lyrics provide the perfect canvas for the performers. The group numbers, School Song, Bruce and Revolting Children, are incredibly satisfying to watch in the flesh – especially for fans of Netflix's film.
Other standout numbers include Loud by Mrs Wormwood and her comedic Italian dance partner Rudolpho and Telly by Mr Wormwood. They're songs that must be done right to provide insight into the story's parodical nature.
Matilda the Musical is truly one of the most shrewd shows in contemporary musical theatre, requiring plenty of technique and talent from its mostly young cast.
The musical adaptation captures both the whimsy and the solemnity of Matilda's journey. It maintains believability despite employing the most theatrical of devices (like singing while someone is being punished for eating a slice of chocolate cake).
Something about it feels raw and, despite the story being retold for decades, there is nothing revolting about it one bit.
Matilda the Musical is on at Dubai Opera until October 15. Tickets starting at Dh365 are available at dubaiopera.com