By Sujata S. Mukhi

Theater Review
Matilda the Musical
Presented by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group
Directed by Bobby Garcia
Ongoing until Dec. 12
Meralco Theater, Ortigas Ave., Q.C.

IN THE FINAL number of Matilda the Musical entitled “Revolting Children,” the outrageously bullied students of Crunchem Hall primary school will take no more of Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull’s salt-on-wound insults and torment. The character of meek and cheerful Bruce, earlier forced to literally stuff his face with a sickeningly huge chocolate cake as punishment, stands on the classroom table, lets out a rich rock star rebel yell, then sings, “Never again will she get the best of me! Never again will she take away my freedom.” The full, fierce tone of Josh Nubla, who played Bruce that night, creates a split-second sense of stunned cognitive dissonance in the audience because it seemed that the voice came out of nowhere. The shock then quickly gives way to a whooping cheer and support for the hapless turned righteous children facing up to the bully. Trunchbull’s revolting, miserable children start the revolt!

I start with the end because there was not a moment that there was no anticipation, not a second that there was no excitement, not a blip where there was no engagement between audience and production. It is no mean feat to sustain that kind of connection, and that was carried right through to the children’s rousing anthem at the end. Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group’s Matilda, under the controlled direction of the tireless Bobby Garcia, had the ability to toss and turn the audience at its will: laughing, crying, snickering, reveling, very much like the telekinetic powers of Matilda, the title character.

The musical is based on the book by beloved children’s author Roald Dahl. Mr. Dahl established his contempt for cruel adults and spoiled brats in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, predating the publishing of Matilda by over two decades. It is the kind heart and innocence of 11-year-old Charlie that allows him to have experiences that no child ever could in Willy Wonka’s world of confection. In Matilda, it is through the titular character’s intellectual curiosity, imagination, and integrity that she is able to save herself and others.

Matilda the Musical takes Mr. Dahl’s world of oppressed children, frightening adults, and wounded, passive guardians, and brings to the stage a dark whimsy unafraid to create song-and-dance numbers on child abuse and trauma — thanks to music and lyrics by Australian comedian Tim Minchin, who gets away with writing songs about sending children who haven’t been good to cupboards lined with nails, spikes, broken nails, and wood.

The opening number “Miracle,” performed with high energy by this excellent cast of children, is critical of current child-rearing trends where children are over-complimented for everything that they do. “It seems that there are millions of these one-in-a-million,” a teacher observes. “Specialness is de rigueur, above average is average.” The dark side of that fawning is revealed to be sheer narcissism on the parents’ part, that their children are only extensions of their ego.

On the other hand, our lead Matilda Wormwood is born to negligent, self-obsessed parents who did not want her. Mrs. Wormwood, played with kitschy flair by Carla Guevara-Laforteza, is even unaware that she is pregnant until she’s about to pop. She is more concerned about her ballroom dancing competition with her partner Rudolpho (the side-splitting scene stealer Bibo Reyes) after just giving birth to her baby. Mr. Wormwood (Joaquin Pedro Valdes with good comic timing) is a deceitful used-car salesman who cannot accept that his child is a girl, and derisively calls her a boy throughout the play.

Unlike her fictional sibling Orphan Annie, Matilda is not sunny and warm, and grows to become a five-year-old who is unsentimental and forthright. She freely expresses her moral worldview which includes an assertive right to be naughty, to take revenge, and to fight for what is just and fair. This is not a five-year-old you need to cuddle, but who you wish would be your ally and advocate.

Matilda Wormwood is all this despite, or maybe because of, being born to ignorant parents who are deeply offended by their child choosing books over television. “She keeps telling me stories!” Mrs. Wormwood bristles in disgust, spitting out the word “bookworm!” with sheer venom, with all the vile of an expletive. When Matilda expresses indignant dismay at a criminal business deal, Mr. Wormwood’s revenge is to take Matilda’s borrowed book and rip off the pages. Watching that was heart rending, and how can you not secretly approve when Matilda retaliates by applying super glue to the rim of her father’s hat?

Matilda is eventually enrolled in Crunchem Hall, run by the abominable Agatha Trunchbull, who relishes creative means of torment and torture. The children all witness as the Headmistress grabs a girl by her pigtails and tosses her like a shot put from her athletic past. Despite the gruesome action, the stage effect of using a comical video graphic of the child whirling in the air was terribly funny. The children earlier sing a cynical alphabet song that makes them realize that their puny little selves are no match for the big bad world. This is your subverted ABCs! “So you think you’re Able, to survive this mess by Being a prince or princess; you will soon C that there’s no escaping trageDy.”

Matilda finds comfort in the library run by Mrs. Phelps, the amiable Milay Celis-Guinid. Matilda becomes a storyteller as she narrates the tale of the acrobat and the escapologist to Mrs. Phelps, who hopes and prays for a happy ending. The musical has introduced this story-within-a-story that apparently is not in the source material. The production uses beautiful shadow play to present this story, which contributes significantly to a plot point later in the play. This is a perfect example of a thoughtful adaptation from book to stage, where the introduction of an entirely new element doesn’t veer from the original intent. It in fact enhances the back story of one of the key characters in a manner worthy of a stage production.

We then meet one of Crunchem Hall’s teachers, the kind but spineless Miss Honey (Cris Villonco). She is immediately drawn to Matilda, and is impressed by her genius. Miss Honey works up the courage to ask permission from Miss Trunchbull to move Matilda to a higher class, and in Ms. Villonco’s rendition of “Pathetic,” you are with her as she sways from confidence to self-recrimination. Her particularly poignant “My House” later in Act 2 expresses a resigned contentment that is both pitiable and infuriating. When we find out why she has not been able to make a bold stand for her students against Miss Trunchbull, the pity transforms into sad understanding, and Ms. Villonco herself transforms.

In the midst of a cascade of verbal abuse regurgitating from Miss Trunchbull’s mouth, Matilda withdraws into a world of quiet, almost cinematic in how this is achieved through great lighting design. It is then that Matilda discovers her telekinetic powers, and she uses these newfound powers at first for revenge, and then eventually to bring justice and fairness. This introduction of her super powers all seemed a little too rushed in the end, and loose ends tied up a little too quickly as Act 2 was brought to its conclusion with everyone getting their heart’s desire. This is more a plot and play script point.

There are so many delights in the production. The rather expressionistic set design of painted books on askew shelves sets the immediate dark tone for Mr. Dahl’s work. The angular choreography as Matilda makes her moves, the what must have been exhausting physical education exercises the children had to perform (and rehearse through day by day!), the flashing of the scrabble-type letters as the children sing their warped alphabet, the brash colors of the Wormwood home versus the drab, torture-chamber look of the Crunchem classroom, that fantastic carousel, the silhouette of the multiple rooms of doom known as Chokey, the aforementioned execution of the story of the escapologist, that hilarious bit of intermission interaction by Mr. Wormwood, the tight musical orchestration and provocative songs that will never end up as earworm. We could go on and on, and this all added up to an absurd and circus-like look and feel under the clear command of a director who did not aim to keep the tone light, but instead redemptive with darkly comic undertones.

But this review would be totally remiss without giving recognition to the actors. The choice to cast Jamie Wilson as Agnes Trunchbull was brilliant. He brought masculinity to Mrs. Trunchbull’s womanhood without resorting to doing it as though he were in drag. Meaning, though he is a biological man playing a woman’s role, Mr. Wilson did not play a man playing a woman’s role. He occupied Mrs. Trunchbull in all her militant menace and sadistic horror.

And the wondrous Telesa Marte Esang de Torres who played our dear Matilda that night, did not ask that you like her or her Matilda. She never cloyed, never played cute, and never played up to adult projections of a child whose cheeks you want to pinch or who you want to objectify and make cute. Though she was so vulnerable and pained in the scene where she is locked up in the closet, Ms. De Torres has a kind of artistic detachedness that earns, rather than demands, your respect. She approached her role seriously and intentionally, and her performance of verbose songs was amazing.

The entire cast, both adults and children, were fully present and connected. We saw young, familiar faces from recent productions that were also excellent in their previous roles. It is gratifying to see this radiant array of exceptional talent onstage and offstage, and a fully responsive audience. There is much to look forward to in homegrown Philippine theater.