BWW Review: MATILDA Schools 'Em All
Manila, Philippines--As far as our fickle adult memory is concerned, there could be very few child roles in major Broadway and West End musicals that captured our hearts: Annie, Oliver, Mary Lennox, and Dorothy. Matilda is the latest welcome addition.
There also seems to be a common DNA inherent in these well-loved young characters: precocious, wily, feisty, with an overdose of cuteness. In these musicals, kids rule. And they save the world from evil adults. Nuff said.
In last Friday's "Matilda the Musical" performance [Nov. 12], not one, not two, but a bunch of precocious, wily, feisty, cute, and heroic kids ruled the Meralco Theater. And they had an urgent message to the adult world: Listen, or else "We are revolting!"
Armed to the teeth with this very, very serious message, these young actors, led by Uma Naomi Martin, were bursting with endless calories and loot bags full of talents. And yes, these kids not only got the gray and the balding in the audience in stitches, they also schooled them for good. While the throng of tots that trooped to the theatre was rooting for Matilda and her gang, dads and moms were watching intently and silently. And the message falls snugly where it belongs.
Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's (ATEG) latest offering, "Matilda the Musical," is a neat production with tons of fun and less of the grit of its London and Broadway counterparts, making this Philippine production a sure-fire hit with kids. Yes, it's rebellious but nowhere near offensive, its visuals cotton candy to the eye, its score easy and fun to the ear. Yes, it's magic and miracle rolled into one delicious, digestible piece of chocolate cake. Go ask Bruce.
Plot and Theme
"Matilda the Musical" is the story of a little girl who has intelligence and psychokinetic powers to spare, whose love for books discombobulates her very own parents. It doesn't help that she was born a girl to a ballroom dance-crazed mother and to a father who would rather prefer a son.
Despite such oppressive domestic atmosphere, Matilda blossoms into a girl whose wit has grown far beyond her years, with some help from Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, etc. Books become Matilda's getaway from her family's cruelty, and in this world of make-believe, she has learned about people, countries, and the Russian language--much to the consternation of his parents who deem books stupid.
She charms her teacher on the first day of school and mesmerizes the local librarian with her knack for riveting storytelling. Her cute antics and precocity earn for her the disdain of the school headmistress Agatha Trunchbull, who regards kids as nothing but stupid vermin that belong in the Chokey (prison). Together with the rest of the Crunchem Hall Primary School's revolting children, Matilda saves the world from the evil Miss Trunchbull while gleefully singing:
Just because you find that life's not fair, it
doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
nothing will change!
"Matilda" is Roald Dahl's children's book published in 1988. Shortly after, it became a huge hit and won the Children's Book Award in 1999. Sweet success it may seem, but writing "Matilda" was not easy for Dahl who attributed old age and grandparenthood to the difficulty. Of "Matilda" he quips, "I had awful trouble with it... I got it wrong... the main character, the little girl kept changing" (as quoted by Donald Sturrock in Storyteller).
A film version starred in and directed by Danny DeVito (Mr. Wormwood) and Mara Wilson in the title role was released in 1996, now regarded a '90s cult classic. The musical version was adapted to the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company in November 2010 and opened in the West End on November 24, 2011, and on Broadway on April 11, 2013. "Matilda," to date, has won 80 international awards including four Tonys and seven Oliviers. Very neat.
Big gifts come in small packages--that's what exactly describes Uma Naomi Martin, who breathes a lovable and believable Matilda into the role. She has kilometric lines to hurdle, yet she blurts them out with unbelievable mastery, clarity, and candor. Her songs are belted with the purity of an angel's voice and the authentic innocence of a child. Tiny and young as she is, her talent and professionalism could rival those of her adult co-stars. Bravo, Uma!
Surely, despite his versatility to play any role, there is no way Jamie Wilson could play a leading lady. I was wrong. Here Wilson plays the misleading lady Agatha Trunchbull, a role he plays to the hilt, boots, whip and all. He --- I mean she, leaves Matilda and her gang scared and tormented, and both the audience kids and adults revolting in tummy cramps.
It is said that people flock to the theatre to find a bigger, better, not a boring version of themselves. Carla Guevara-Laforteza as Mrs. Wormwood gives exactly that, more specifically to the Zumba moms who would surely be delighted to see their kind played so hilariously and so saucily by Guevara-Laforteza.
Joaquin Pedro Valdes gives some justice to Mr. Wormwood but leaving much to be desired. His seeming intent to accentillate (my word for actors who use accent to titillate the audience) the role robs him of the clarity of lines so necessary in the spoken narrative, and his inability to cover up his youth seems to get in the way of realizing a full-fledged Wormwood. Valdes's wit and charm though saves his day.
Sadly, Cris Villonco's Miss Honey never really takes off. She actually starts out well but her Miss Honey is stuck in pasty, lethargic characterization so in want of artistic redemption. Her saving grace lies in the number "My House", a heartwarming look into her secluded, modest world.
Two supporting actors who deserve special mention are Bibo Reyes (Rudolpho), who steals the show every time with his ballroom dancing quirks, and Nel Gomez (Michael Wormwood) who nonchalantly lends a condescendingly hilarious undertone in the musical number "Telly."
Not to be outsmarted by the leads, the ensemble--a throng of ATEG regulars--solidifies the parts into a beautiful whole. Their strength relies not on their number, but on genuine talent and enviable professionalism. Bravo!
The Little Twerps
Those "little twerps"--as fondly called by Tim Minchin, the show's composer and lyricist--are quite a handful. All together, they provide the musical an overdose of self-entitlement with a lavish washdown of cuteness.
Lining up for Matilda's equally gifted cohorts are Josh Nubla (Bruce), Gabrielle Ong (Lavender), Nicole Beverly Chien (Alice), Rhythm Alexander (Eric), and Teddy Velasco (Tommy), who all conspire to push the show right into the hearts of the audience.
Forgive me, but Nicole Chien--the Lea Salonga kid--got my attention even before the show hit the stage, for obvious reasons. Her multi-awarded mom out of the picture, Nicole confidently delivers a consistently focused characterization, never breaking character even when behind other child actors. Her talent may be emerging, yet her professionalism is up there this early. To the vile bashing muggles, disapparate!
Bobby Garcia 's direction is decidedly a safe, over-the-top, and child-friendly progeny. Understandably, the production's intent is for its young audiences. And its magic works very well.
Garcia's version teems with big and small surprises. He cleverly replaces the iconic swing with an eye-popping carousel. Yes, a revolving carousel in the middle of the stage! He has managed to maneuver a challenging production--choreography, sets, lights, sound design, and orchestra, all cleverly and smoothly put together--into a slick product that is almost seemingly devoid of lamentable flaws.
Minchin 's score, a strong contender in the 2013 Tony Award Best Score against Cyndi Lauper's "Kinky Boots" (watch out, ATEG is restaging it), is laudably simple but incredibly catchy. It also simmers with witticism and childish angst. The orchestra under the baton of music director Farley Asuncion sounds flawless and uninhibited by the perennially problematic Meralco Theater acoustics. Cecile Martinez 's choreography is also commendable, bringing out what the tiny actors could possibly do best. Scenic designer Faust Peneyra has pulled another trick out of his creative hat and one couldn't help but be astonished by his set so elaborate yet practically spacious. Dennis Kelly 's book, on the other hand, gives justice to Dahl's masterpiece without sacrificing the original narrative's clarity and fluidity.
The Verdict: Do yourself a hugely sweet favor: Get schooled by "Matilda The Musical," by hook or by crook. And by all means, tag along as many kids (and adults) as you can.
"Matilda The Musical" runs at the Meralco Theater in Pasig City until Sunday, December 10. Buy tickets (P1,500 - P4,000) at TicketWorld.com.ph.
Photos: Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group