“Matilda,” the Korean production of “Matilda the Musical,” provides ample doses of what you would expect of the Tony-winning musical, from witty banter, funny and likeable characters to satirical comedy just black enough to still pass for a children’s story.
The musical, based on the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, focuses on brilliant but mistreated girl Matilda, who endures obstacles in her life from her ignorant and obnoxious parents to her principal Miss Trunchbull.
It basically follows the same storyline as the book, which is like a Tim Burton coming-of-age tale.
What stands out in an obvious way is the ensemble of child actors. Some of the children are actually played by adults, but the main roles -- including Matilda, pudgy but adorable Bruce, Matilda’s best friend Lavender and runt of the litter Nigel -- are assumed by actual children.
What could have been a risk factor of having less trained and experienced child actors play the main roles becomes its strength. The exuberance and life palpitating from within these actors are incredible, and that energy carries the show.
Matilda, played by Lee Ji-na in the version The Korea Herald saw, emanated the resilience of a character we can all get behind.
In addition to the children’s energy, the youth of the main cast is something children in the audience -- who would be around the same age -- can relate to. It’s not just the fact they are children -- and admittedly absolutely adorable – but that they are extremely well choreographed and skillful, all the more amazing considering their age.
But our heroes are as good as the villain. Traditionally, the musical casts the children as small as possible and the villains as tall as possible for maximum contrast.
The role of main antagonist is traditionally taken by a man, in this case through the towering figure of Choi Jae-rim. He is spot on in depicting a despicable character and does a good job of evoking laughter while remaining a menace, in a performance that is another highlight of the show.
Miss Honey was well portrayed, good-willed and rather forgettable, but that’s kind of the point for the character.
The gimmicky moves -- Matilda’s telling of the acrobat and escapologist couple story, Trenchbull’s abuses, the climactic showdown in the end -- were very effective and just enough props and setting were used on stage for the audience to picture the appropriate backgrounds in their heads.
Finally, it must have been a nightmare for the translator to change all the English into Korean while retaining as much wordplay as possible, but the translation was reasonably solid. The A through Z wordplay in “School Song” was very impressive, although some of the slang and catchphrases came off a bit cheesy.
It really lucked out that this particular musical puts more emphasis on acting than singing and dancing, because singing and dancing is something child actors’ youthful bodies just cannot perform on par with adult actors.
Having said that, the children’s acting and dancing is good, but their singing is not up to the snuff of their West End counterparts. Their energy was through the roof, but the voices relatively weak.
While the translators did the best they could -- quite effectively -- some of the fun and rhymes are lost in translation, and it cost the show. “Revolting Children” is supposed to be a blood-pumping moment, but it came off as cute rather than revolting.
Despite some flaws, it is still a very enjoyable experience. Fitting Korean words into what is clearly structured specifically for English is no simple task, and the Korean production still manages to keep most of the humor and color of the original.
“Matilda” is being staged at LG Arts Center in Gangnam, southern Seoul. The show runs at 8 p.m. from Tuesdays to Fridays, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays. The Sept. 26 show will be at 2 p.m.
There are no shows on Mondays.
“Matilda” runs until Feb. 10, 2019, and tickets cost between 60,000 won and 140,000 won.
A special discount of 20 percent for all seats is available from Sunday through Thursday, in commemoration of the Chuseok holidays.
By Yoon Min-sik