MANILA — The future of Philippine musical theater is bright, secure and in full glorious display in “Matilda,” which opened at the Meralco Theater on Friday.
At Thursday’s preview performance, the cast, led by an amazingly confident Esang de Torres in the title role, earned a loud standing ovation from an appreciative audience that included several excited children, who braved the traffic and bad weather for a night at the theater.
The response was well-deserved. Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl about a highly intelligent yet unloved little girl, “Matilda” isn’t like recent similar musicals with cheerful tots such as “Annie,” “A Little Princess” and even the ongoing “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Featuring songs with titles such as “Naughty” and the centerpiece “Revolting Children,” playwright David Kelly and composer-lyricist Tim Minchin have created an unapologetically dark, moving and empowering tale that speaks honestly to children about the realities of abuse, punishment, bullying and loneliness.
Even before she was born, Matilda Wormwood was already an unwanted child. Her mother wasn’t even aware that she was pregnant until shortly before she gave birth, while Mr. Wormwood wanted another son so badly that years after, he still calls her “boy” (which she never fails to correct).
Matilda’s love for books (she frequents the library and has read Dostoevsky — in Russian) is resented by her own family. Her mother, a ballroom dancer with a vulgar sense of fashion, lectures Matilda in the upbeat “Loud” that looks are more important than books, while her father prefers that she watches television instead, even singing an ode to the boob tube (“Telly”) in a breaking-the-fourth-wall number during intermission.
School life for Matilda is even worse. Apart from the usual bullying from older students, she also has to deal with the despotic headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a strapping former hammer-throw champion whose personal motto is “children are maggots.”
Perhaps the only ones who believe that Matilda is special are the librarian, Miss Phelps who loves listening to Matilda’s stories; and the mousey Miss Honey, who has her own self-esteem issues.
While Matilda quotes Charles Dickens, this musical should easily appeal to the Harry Potter crowd with its dark and magical themes, empowered characters and imaginative visuals. Scenic designer Faust Peneyra frames the stage with bookcases filled with books, while stories come to life through shadow puppets. The adult villains are styled as grotesque and cartoonish, and the school is depicted as some sort of horror house — which is probably how these kids see them.
Yet in the hopeful “When I Grow Up,” the mood lightens up with the set opening up to reveal a giant carousel, one of the few numbers here that sparkle with warmth, a wistful look at childhood that also functions as a promise to right the wrongs of the adults when it is their turn.
Yet even in such moments, director Bobby Garcia doesn’t allow “Matilda” to be swept into easy sentimentality. The children don’t just revolt against a terror teacher but against an entire system that favors cruelty in the guise of discipline over kindness, that punishes imagination and rewards passive entertainment. The essence of Matilda isn’t that she is unloved — like many of the orphaned characters in children’s literature — but in her refusal to adhere to the story set for her.
And this is also what makes the performance of De Torres remarkable. A finalist in “The Voice Kids” where she was mentored by Broadway star Lea Salonga, De Torres (she alternates in the title role with two other girls, Uma Naomi Martin and Felicity Kyle Napuli), doesn’t rely on the usual cute antics like many child performers. Heck, she doesn’t even smile.
Moreover, she doesn’t just sing but had to memorize long lines which she delivers in a British accent, consistently in character and in many instances in unison with another actor, so her timing had to be perfect.
That said, De Torres’s voice was downright beautiful and she has significantly improved from her stint on “The Voice Kids” and "Les Miserables." This was in full display in the dramatic solo “Quiet,” where she showed impeccable technique and placement.
Similarly Jamie Wilson doesn’t resort to the usual comedic drag performance as Miss Trunchbull. Wilson indeed comes across as a raging, psychotic and frighteningly large woman in terms of his speech and even when singing.
Cris Villonco was perfectly cast as the “pathetic” Miss Honey with her sweet soprano providing the necessary comfort in numbers such as “My House,” while Joaquin Valdez and Carla Guevarra-Laforteza as Matilda’s parents were more clueless than evil and they performed their numbers with just the right dash of comedy befitting their flashy characters.
“Matilda” also features an energetic ensemble of child performers, who include Salonga’s daughter Nicole Chien, who fully embraced the musical’s darker themes in the much-applauded “Revolting Children” number, yet can shift to sunny (the opening “Miracle”) and optimistic (“When I Grow Up”) when necessary.
It is interesting that Atlantis chose to stage both “Kinky Boots” and “Matilda” this year, two musicals that had critics divided when they competed for the Tony Awards in 2013 ("Kinky Boots" won). Certainly, Garcia and his creative team did justice to both these outstanding and entertaining musicals, but if I had to choose, I’d go for the little girl.
“Matilda” runs at the Meralco Theater until December 10.