Matilda The Musical: Extraordinary, endearing Esang

I first heard of “Matilda” as a 1996 film based on a 1988 Roald Dahl book. This starred Mara Wilson in the title role and Danny de Vito (who also directed) as her father, Harry Wormwood.
In 2011, the musical version of “Matilda” (music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly) debuted on the West End in London. This production won a record-setting seven Olivier Awards, including Best Musical. Its Broadway debut was in 2013, for which it won five Tony Awards.
This year, Atlantis brings the acclaimed hit show to Manila.
A precocious little girl named Matilda was born to the Wormwoods, a slimy car conman and his bimbo dancer wife. Feeling unloved by her family, Matilda immersed herself in a lot of books, something for which her parents despised her even more.
When she entered school, her genius for reading and math caught the attention of her kind teacher, Miss Honey.
This same ability, however, earned the ire of ogre-like headmistress Mrs. Agatha Trunchbull, a former Olympic gold medalist in the hammer throw event, who considered children as maggots who needed to be broken. But time came when Matilda just could not take Trunchbull’s cruel bullying anymore.
The heart and soul of the whole show was Telesa Marie “Esang” de Torres, who played Matilda. I first saw her as a mini-me Lea Salonga on “It’s Showtime” and later as a contestant under Team Lea on “The Voice Kids.” So impressive was her snappy Hermione Granger-sounding British accent with which she flawlessly delivered the longest lines while narrating four parts of her story about an escapologist and his acrobat wife.
When we heard her sing her solo songs “Naughty” and “Quiet,” it transcended any initial expectations for a child performer of her age in her first lead role in a major production. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that “Matilda” is for Esang what “Annie” was for Lea Salonga. (Uma Naomi Martin and Felicity Kyle Napuli alternate in this role.)
The goody-goody adult characters on Matilda’s side were her dedicated teacher Miss Honey and the friendly librarian Mrs. Phelps.
Cris Villonco’s kind face and crystal voice were perfect for the sweet but determined Miss Honey. “Pathetic” shows off her skill with tongue-twisting lyrics and “My House” provides the more sentimental moment of the show. Emeline Celis-Guinid had to be wacky and flighty to keep her character from being stuffy.
The cute child actors who played Matilda’s “revolting” classmates were bursting at the seams with their quirky personality. Standing out in their more prominent roles were Josh Nubla (as the chocolate cake glutton Bruce) and Gabrielle Aerin Ong (as Matilda’s best friend Lavender).
Likewise drawing attention on that crowded stage were Alba Berenguer-Testa (as Hortensia) with her patrician looks and Nicole Chien (as Alice) for being Lea Salonga’s daughter.
The other kids were Pablo Palacpac as the bespectacled Nigel, Chi Chi Tan as the pigtailed Amanda, Ian Albert Magallona as Eric, Teddy Velasco as Tommy. (Miguel Suarez, Maria Ericka Peralejo, Chantel Marie Guinid, Ella Gonzalez, Gabo Tiongson, Denise Arteta, Rhythm Alexander and John Joseph Miraflores alternate, respectively.)
My favorite songs by the children were “The School Song” with its innovative A-B-C lesson and their rabble-rousing number “Revolting Children.”
But of course, as with all other plays and musicals based on children’s literature, those bizarre kooky villains were a lot more fun to watch.
Jamie Wilson was hilarious in his gender-bending role as the terrifying and hateful Miss Agatha Trunchbull with her twisted philosophy for teaching children. Wilson had this funny perpetual scowl on his face as he marched around the stage in his fat suit, skirts and bloomers.
Her song number, “The Smell of Rebellion,” was a such an outlandish riot and show-stopping highlight.
Joaquin Valdes and Carla Guevara-Laforteza stretched their skills for slapstick comedy to play the crazy Wormwoods with their bizarre makeup and cartoonish costumes. They have outdone their own off-kilter characters earlier this year, as Spike for Valdes in Rep’s “Masha, Vanya, Sonia and Spike” and as Lady of the Lake in Upstart’s “Spamalot” for Laforteza. Valdes and Laforteza frequently do amazingly quick changes to play their dramatic alter egos, the Escapologist and the Acrobat.
Nel Gomez was hardly recognizable as the spaced-out elder brother Michael. Bibo Reyes steals his scenes with his stupid pseudo-Italian dance instructor character Rudolpho.
Tim Pavino had a very short featured role as Mrs. Wormwood’s cool doctor in the beginning of the show, as Steven Conde did as the Russian mob boss Sergei towards the end.
Rhenwyn Gabalonzo, Teetin Villanueva, Gerhard Krystoffer, Alex Reyes, Jim Andrew Ferrer, Gabby Padilla and Mica Fajardo complete the rest of the ensemble.
The beautiful stage design depicting Matilda’s favorite library is immediately arresting in its size and play with colors, as designed by Faust Peneyra, and enhanced by Driscoll Otto’s lights. The magnificent carousel opening the second act is a most impressive set piece.
Other remarkable aspects of the show were Raven Ong’s costumes and Cecile Martinez’s choreography.
Director Bobby Garcia, as always, never fails to wow the audience with how he staged the shadow play story-tellling and the telekinetic special effects. This technical finesse, coupled with the on-point performances, make this another triumph in the already extensive Atlantis catalog of Broadway hit show productions. Kudos!
***
“Matilda” will run at the Meralco Theater on weekends until Dec. 10, with 8 p.m. shows on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.  Tickets available at Ticketworld.com. Prices range from P4,000 (Orchestra Center), P3,500 (Orchestra Sides and Loge Center), P2,500 (Loge Sides) and P1,500 (Balcony).

First appeared in Fred Said: THEATER, CONCERTS, EVENTS, Nov. 11, 2017.

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