by Mirava M. Yuson
MANILA, Philippines — Before Stranger Things’ Eleven, there was Stephen King’s Carrie. And before that, X-Men’s Jean Grey. But somewhere in between, for all those who grew up in the ’90s, the iconic female telekinetic misfit of our generation was Matilda. Most first met her as the lovable girl played by Mara Wilson in the iconic Danny DeVito-directed feature based on what was originally a Roald Dahl novel. But Matilda: The Musical takes her back to her British roots: in true Dahl-istic fashion, the play is a breezy children’s story at the surface while underneath, it is an in-depth exploration of the benefits and dangers of reciprocal altruism.
Still, the keyword here is “children.” Matilda has a largely young cast, with three actresses alternating for the title role. For our showing, Felicity Kyle S. Napuli delighted the crowd and had everyone on their feet by the time the night was over, perfecting the self-assured tone of Matilda and the rounded vowels of a Brit. Her best friend Lavender was played by Maria Ericka Peralejo, and Miguel Suarez consumed without hesitation the role of Bruce Bogtrotter. Although it’s typical to have adults play children in productions, the roaring young cast is proof that there’s nothing quite like watching authentic kids be kids, as clearly all of them seemed to be having fun on stage. To impress further, none appeared to have any difficulty with the choreography (which was extensive and even acrobatic at times), while tackling the intricate wordplay unique to the play’s Tony-winning book and lyrics.
In the midst of all the schoolyard shenanigans, the musical’s crowning achievement is as impressive as it is oxymoronic, since it is ultimately a feel-good story about overcoming child abuse. Matilda is unwanted by her family, constantly neglected, and is very much aware of her abuse, but maneuvers her way out of it through her book smarts. The magic is not in Matilda’s moments of sorcery but in her sense of innovation.
The strength of the production is not its flashy effects whenever Matilda uses her powers, but during heartwarming moments with Miss Honey (Cris Villonco), her class adviser and fellow abuse victim, as they connect and help each other defeat the narcissists plaguing them. In fact, Matilda’s supernatural abilities are practically an afterthought; she could have found a way to accomplish many of her schemes without them, but she is proof of what one can achieve even when pushed into a corner (or in this case, into a “Chokey”).
Movie Matilda taught children to turn angst into something productive. Memorable scenes from the film include her being neglected at home for up to nine hours a day, and learning to cook, read and go to the library by herself. In turn, the play reflects this by emphasizing that she moves things with her “eyes.” Meaning, Matilda is brilliant because of her mind, and intellect has no bearing on her powers. This is why, throughout the story, Matilda constantly hones not her telekinesis but her knowledge and talents in declamation instead.
Since Roald Dahl is known for his kooky universes, the musical further ups the ante on zaniness. Whereas in the movie, Matilda’s parents were frighteningly suburban in their cruelty, the Wormwoods (played by Joaquin Valdes and Carla Guevara-Laforteza) parade around in gaudy colors and have a private dance instructor named Rudolpho (Bibo Reyes). That is not to say, of course, that their parenting is any less cruel. In fact, something overheard while leaving the theater was an audience member telling their companion that the green-haired Mr. Wormwood was “a better Joker than Jared Leto.” And Miss Trunchbull (Jamie Wilson), who was every kid’s worst nightmare, still has her trademark unibrow — except that she sings her threats now instead of shouting them. Understandably, Matilda’s transition to theater required a more comical approach, but the cruelty and neglect in her upbringing are still apparent. One particular song number, When I Grow Up, touchingly embodies the fears and aspirations of being young.
Atlantis Productions has been on a roll this year, with director Bobby Garcia bringing to the country Broadway’s two rivaling musicals from 2013, Kinky Boots and Matilda. Both on opposite ends of the spectrum, the transgendered, high-kicking acrobatic shoemakers shared the stage with a chorus of schoolgirls during the Tony Awards (in true Broadway fashion) and both competed for Best Musical. Back then, Kinky Boots won, but Matilda, as evidenced by its positive feedback so far, proves why it was able to put up such a good fight. Toe-tapping tunes and an uplifting message have made it a hit so far among both adults and kids. With Kinky Boots returning for a second run in March, the friendly rivalry between the two is set to continue.
This article originally appeared at http://www.philstar.com/arts-and-culture/2017/11/27/1762726/uplifting-and-moving-matilda