“Wasn’t that spectacular?” a little girl exclaims to her friend after a matinee show of Matilda the Musical at Meralco Theater. ‘Spectacular’ sums up this Atlantis Theatricals Entertainment Group (ATEG) production quite succinctly.
This isn’t to say that the show is all spectacle. On the contrary, Matilda is an emotional, triumphant tale of overcoming bullying, neglect, abuse, and even anti-intellectualism. Adapted for the stage by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the musical captures both the light and darkness of Roald Dahl’s book. For the Philippine stage, Bobby Garcia takes the material and directs a company of adults and children alike, quite frankly, to greatness.
Dahl has a penchant for writing adults who are frightening to children, and none more so than those who were supposed to care for and protect Matilda (Felicity Kyle Napuli). Unique and brilliant, she had the unfortunate luck of being born to parents who didn’t want her. Mrs. Wormwood (Carla Guevara-Laforteza once again shows her ease and excellence in comedy) is vapid and primarily occupied with amateur ballroom dancing, while her husband (Joaquin Pedro Valdes transforms into a wriggly, hilarious Mr. Wormwood) is a slimy car salesman who disapproves of reading and, well, daughters (he repeatedly refers to Matilda as “boy”).
Other children sing about how their parents say they’re miracles (“Miracle”) while Matilda laments that her mom says she’s a good case for population control. Napuli’s Matilda initially takes the more painful aspects of her character’s situation in stride, playing up Matilda’s audaciousness.
Taking solace in books and little bouts of mischief against her silly, mean-spirited parents, Matilda learns from the stories she’s read (“Naughty”) and with precocious self-awareness decides that “just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it”. In “Naughty”, Napuli (all of 10 years old) completely devours the stage, possessing a charm that tells you that she can carry the show, thank you very much. In her capable hands, Matilda is a heroine and this song is anthemic of not just power, but girl power.
School is not an escape for Matilda, nor is it any better for the ‘little miracles’ that join her at Crunchem Hall. They’re all plagued by the horrifying Miss Trunchbull (Jamie Wilson), a big broad of a lady whose bite is worse than her bark. She loves order and loathes children (the school’s motto is “Children are maggots”), giving out sinister and often violent punishment to rulebreakers, like making a little boy eat an entire chocolate cake twice his size (Miguel Suarez as Bruce sells the stage magic) or hammer-throwing a little girl into thin air by her pigtails.
Lesser actors than Jamie Wilson would’ve considered a role like Trunchbull as license to go overboard, but his Trunchbull is contained and calculated, which makes for an altogether more menacing villain.
Fortunately, there is Miss Honey (Cris Villonco) who, despite being timid, has her heart in the right place. She sees Matilda’s potential from the start and tries to overcome her fear of confrontation to fight for this little girl and the other students in her care. But this Matilda isn’t really about just accepting love from whomever is willing to give it.
In a story-within-a-story, Matilda tells the librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Emeline Celis-Guinid), a vivid tale of an Escapologist and an Acrobat whose only true desire in life is to have and love a child. (The shadow play–GA Fallarme is Projection Designer–adds another layer of whimsy to the already stunning production design.) She imagines her parents to be this couple. Where Matilda initially disapproves of her family as much as they do her, her inner world reveals the true tragedy of being unwanted.
Despite her naughtiness and independence, she wants to be loved by the people who birthed her. This adds a layer to her already complicated relationship with her father. In one scene, he calls her a “nasty little creep” and locks her in a cellar. Matilda comforts herself with the imaginary version of her father. Valdes shifts from the zany Wormwood to the loving Escapologist with real aplomb, the gentle “I’m Here” quite a departure from the rollicking act 2 opener, “Telly”.
Matilda’s telekinetic powers doesn’t come into play until well into the second act (in a song called “Quiet” that Napuli sings with the astonishing delicateness of a performer beyond her years), and it’s almost an unnecessary addition. She had already been magical from the beginning, made so by her intellect and strength of will.
Stars are born
Napuli isn’t the only star kid on stage. Each show has eight other young triple threats who don’t just perform their individual characters, but also form part of the ensemble. They’re put through their paces (Choreographer is Cecile Martinez) and prove up to task. The kids doing P.E. drills in “The Smell of Rebellion” and rioting in the show’s big rock number, “Revolting Children” may be the show’s highlights.
It also bears noting that the entire cast–all of them, bar none–did not only speak in impeccable English accents, they did so with clear diction and precise delivery that made everyone understand exactly what they’re saying and singing about.
Scenic Designer Faust Peneyra’s set looks like a child’s picture book come to life, or finding yourself in Mad Hatter’s library. Books of varying sizes provide the backdrop and line the proscenium. Everything is wonderfully colorful and a little bit askew. Driscoll Otto (Lighting Designer) gives the set that dark and eerie mood that perfectly sets the tone for Minchin’s often mischievous music and lyrics. Raven Ong’s costumes and Johann Dela Fuente’s hair and makeup design helped create playful characters that are larger than life.
As far as musical theater goes, it just doesn’t get any better than Matilda the Musical. Garcia puts together a joyous, magical experience with such a caliber of talent and stagecraft, it’s almost overwhelming. What is most important, however, is that this iteration introduces Matilda to today’s little girls (and boys!) with the same magic that has made her an iconic literary and cinematic heroine.
In these days of women finding their own voice and speaking truth to power, Matilda is not just a role model for kids to look up to, she’s an idol for our times.