Children are maggots.”
This was printed on the shirts of the ushers and usherettes all over the Meralco Theater, reminding the guests that we were leaving the safety of our comfort zones and stepping into the incredibly child-unfriendly world of Ms Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of the fictional Crunchem Hall Primary School.
Having read the book of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” about 25 years ago, I could hardly remember the details of the story, but naturally, still do recall the overall premise. As far as I could remember, it was a delightful story about a young girl with incredible mental prowess, a pair of bumbling fools for parents, and both evil and kind teachers whose lives she would change forever.
I had heard quite a number of good things about the musical version, but I was curious as to how they would bring such a classic story to life, and hold the interest and attention of the children.
But, as the show opened, beginning with a cast of young and talented children singing about the “Miracle” that their parents have been raising them to believe they are, I was immediately won over. The song has some very tongue-in-cheek elements, showing all of us parents in the audience what happens when we raise our children to believe that the universe revolves around them, and submitting to their every whim and caprice. As the song progresses, it switches to highlighting the beauty and hope that accompany every child’s birth. However, this energetic and humorous song ends on a sad note, with the introduction of our show’s heroine, Matilda, and the stark contrast in upbringing.
Precocious and ‘naughty’
On the day we watched, we had Uma Naomi Martin, an eight-year-old performer whose presence filled the stage, and who had everyone eating out of her hand. She swept us into her world—this brilliant, precocious and self-proclaimed “naughty” crusading little girl, who was such a joy but filled with such sadness, one couldn’t help but want to reach out and give her a loving embrace.
Matilda is the unloved child prodigy of Harry Wormwood (so convincingly played by Joaquin Valdes!), a pushy, dishonest salesman who would sell his own mother down the river, and his vain, ballroom-dancing wife, Zinnia (brought to life by Carla Guevara-Laforteza). For this couple, education has little or no importance whatsoever, and they shudder at the sight of their daughter reading.
The Wormwoods constantly bemoan their misfortune at having a daughter instead of a son, and even worse, one who spends all her time reading, instead of watching the “telly” like her older brother, who appears to be in a haze most of the time.
The couple is every inch a caricature, begging to be put in their place, and that is what Matilda sets out to do, as she sings about being “Naughty.” However, far from being a troublemaker, Matilda’s version of being naughty means setting things right and ensuring justice for all.
She sings to remind all of us, the little ones most especially, that we must never allow injustice to prevail, and cannot simply sit back and allow evil people to do what they want. In not so many words, she gets the message across that no matter how small one is, there is nothing he or she cannot do, and in fact, not doing anything means condoning the evil done—a powerful and relevant message from the mouths of babes.
The Wormwoods are awful on their own, but pale in comparison to the sadistic and cruel Agatha Trunchbull and her long list of varied punishments, ranging from forced feeding and physical abuse to a trip to the “Chokey.”
Every student is terrified of her, and for good reason, but all it takes is the daring of one little child to change things and bring the children to accept, nay, own their description as “Revolting Children.” They are revolting because they take things into their own hands, and stand up for themselves against their bully of a headmistress.
I dare not say anything about who plays the role of Ms Trunchbull as I would not want to ruin the surprise, but I have to say, the incredible performance of Ms Trunchbull is hard to top, and long after the show was over, we were still laughing over her mannerisms and performance. Meanwhile, Ms Honey is played by the very talented Cris Villongco, and she plays to perfection the part of the sweet and loving teacher whose fate is intertwined with that of Matilda.
The story is told through fast-paced songs, and though I had forgotten some details, I was glad to be reminded of them as they came to life onstage, despite the seeming impossibility of it. Because really, at the end of the day, it is those details that bring a story to life and define its characters.
For instance, Ms Trunchbull grabbing a student by her pigtails and spinning her around before throwing her clean over the school walls was not something I expected to see in the show, but get ready for it to jump out of the pages and on to the stage!
And speaking of the stage, it was not an elaborate stage, but it was impressive enough and just right for their young viewers, with the letters of the alphabet lighting up and a carousel spinning around, with each character talking about their hopes and dreams as they came to the front.
The show predictably ends happily for everyone, but better yet, it ends with a message of empowerment for children, no matter how small, and a reminder to stand up for justice at all times. It’s something that our children would do well to remember as they grow up.
“Matilda” runs at the Meralco Theater until Dec. 10. Tickets are available at www.ticketworld.com.ph