Five-year-old Matilda Wormwood is brilliant, compassionate, well-read and also something of a rule breaker. But then, she has to be when many of the rule-making adults around her are criminals in some way. Palo Alto Players open their season with a high-spirited musical about how Matilda and her classmates find their way as they grapple with a lot of not-so-great grownups.
"Matilda the Musical" with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly, runs through Sept. 24 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.
The show is based on a 1988 book by children's author Roald Dahl. Outwardly, the musical's obvious audience is children, but like the character of Matilda herself, there's more beneath the surface. The show provides plenty of laughs for younger audience members, but also highlights messages adults can appreciate, and offers performances that all ages will likely enjoy.
The show makes a solid case that when the rules are made to be unfair, written to benefit a very narrow group of people, sometimes it's not only OK to break the rules, it's necessary.
The role of Matilda is double cast with young actors Sofia Zamora and Araceli Grace. Zamora was in the role at the show I attended and her performance offered a nice sense of the character's heart and humanity, as well as her cleverness.
She is joined by a young ensemble cast of talented performers as Matilda's classmates.
Matilda is academically and emotionally advanced for her age and has a particular fondness for both reading and storytelling, but she finds little encouragement from the comically bad grownups around her, from her contemptuous parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Randy Lee and Brigitte Losey) to the child-hating school headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Doug Santana). These adults seek to quash her talents and steer her toward a narrow, "socially acceptable" path in life.
It's down to an enthusiastic librarian, Miss Phelps (Kayvon Kordestani, bringing an approachable kookiness to the role), and kindly new teacher, Miss Honey (Madelyn Davis), to provide some adult moral support, though Matilda is still largely on her own. Davis brings appealing warmth to a challenging character: an adult heroine whose primary role is as a meek foil for a parade of grownup bullies. Davis and Zamora played well off each other in their many scenes together and it's through Miss Honey's own plight that Matilda eventually finds a way to stand up for everyone at the school and confront Miss Trunchbull.
Losey and Lee get big laughs as Matilda's self-involved, superficial parents. Mrs. Wormwood bemoans her daughter's lack of interest in clothes and makeup, but largely ignores her. With the song "Loud," Losey, along with Ian Catindig as Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood's suspiciously handsy "dance teacher," pull off an entertaining song and dance that's an ode to shallowness, shouting down Miss Honey's attempt to improve Matilda's situation at school.
Mr. Wormwood admonishes Matilda to stop embarrassing him by reading books and watch television instead. He touts the virtues of TV in "All I Know," a rousing second-act opener sung to the audience, which Lee really leans into. Papa Wormwood also takes exception to Matilda calling him out on shady business practices at his used car dealership.
In fact, the smart young protagonist already has her own steady moral compass. She wisely doesn't take most adults' word on the right thing to do in "polite society," which seems to accept far more wrongdoing than Matilda is prepared to. The silence of her older brother, Michael (Owen Yeh-Lee), who interacts with everyone as little as possible, suggests that going along to get along is a lesser, alternate path for dealing with such awful parents. Yeh-Lee conveys a comic resignation in his posture and movements.
Matilda pulls some funny pranks at home and at school, but not out of meanness — instead they're designed to hit back at grownups' vanity, greed and cruelty, which brings us to Miss Trunchbull.
Santana plays the sadistic headmistress of Crunchem Hall school with relish, and garners some of the biggest laughs with his over-the-top portrayal of a truly absurd character. Miss Trunchbull, a former Olympic hammer-throwing champion, sneers with contempt for her young charges and seizes upon any reason to punish them with a trip to the Chokey, a tiny closet lined with dangerously sharp objects.
Thundering around the stage in bulky, military-style drag, Santana brings perfectly controlled chaos to every scene he's in and it's clear that he and the young ensemble of actors playing the students are having a great time together.
Director Janie Scott keeps the large cast humming along at a frenetic pace that matches the story's over-the-top feel. The staging ensures, crucially, that young audiences feel included, with cast members making numerous entrances and exits via the two aisles that run through the Lucie Stern's seats, bringing these crazy characters just close enough to the audience. Likewise, a few asides to the audience were very well-received, particularly when Matilda's friend Lavender (a winning Gianna DeLuca) drops heavy hints about a prank she's planning to pull on Miss Trunchbull, soliciting guesses from a delighted crowd.
Choreographer Whitney Janssen impresses with precise choreography that fills the stage and gives the sense of a much larger ensemble, especially in the classroom scenes.
Greet Jaspaert's costumes for the show's villains in particular are eye-catching and well-suited to this fanciful trio of baddies, with shockingly bright colors and patterns denoting just how gauche the Wormwoods are, while by contrast, the drab, lumpy hulking uniform of Miss Trunchbull captures both her rigidity and her menace.
I'm ambivalent about Scott's decision to have the actors speak in British dialect. It seems a natural choice, given the many Britishisms in the script — it's hard to imagine most Americans convincingly saying they feel "knackered" — plus the accents may also provide some comfortable distance for young audiences in suggesting that a world run by so many cruel adults is somewhere other than right here. But it's not always easy to understand what the actors are saying, especially in song, and the British slang further obscures that sometimes.
That said, the visual comedy and sight gags are easily understood, even by the youngest audiences. And that's the real magic of the show: its absurdist comic appeal that spurs lots of giggles but also spares a thought for the real power of those who break the rules when it's the right thing to do.
Matilda the Musical runs through Sept. 24 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $30-$57. paplayers.org.