Review: CMTSJ’s strong ‘Matilda’ flies through the imagination

2 Matildas
(L to R) Penelope DaSilva and Jillian Mendelson alternate the title role in “Matilda the Musical,” running through Sunday, Dec. 15th at Children’s Musical Theater San Jose. (Goose and Bugs photography)

Young Matilda is a bit like Kevin McAllister from the hit 1990 holiday film “Home Alone.” She is the smartest person in the room, unflappable, loaded with presence and in control at all times in circumstances that would crush other mortals. She also possesses a fun sense of revenge; her horrible living situation allows her to use her chess mind in a world filled with those who can barely play checkers.

In the Children’s Musical Theater San Jose production of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” directed with forceful and quick precision by artistic director Kevin Hauge, everything starts and finishes with the young, precocious little girl who reads a ton of books, and that is probably literally. Not only is she well read, but also an incredible storyteller who moves others with her tall tales which come from a passionate imagination. She is famously born to the absolute wrong family, a group of mouth breathers that stare at the TV and join ballroom dance competitions where they bring minimal talent.

In this fantastic production, there is no stone unturned when it comes to terrific principal performances and the witty athleticism of the ensemble cast, who spend much of their time trying to stay out of the infamous “Chokey” while they jump, spin and whirl non-stop.

The little telekinetic child Matilda (a stunning portrayal by Penelope DaSilva, who alternates performances with Jillian Mendelson) has a very strong case for having been adopted, but as we see in the opening scene, she was most definitely a product of slimeball car salesman Mr. Wormwood (charming Ian Leonard) and Mrs. Wormwood (sharply limber Sarah Bylsma), a woman who is irked that she missed a ballroom dance competition because she had to give birth. The two Wormood parentals also have a son Michael (perfectly zombied Leandro Bilello), who is the blueprint for what Matilda’s future might be, since non-stop television is his only source of mental stimulation.

Matilda is a charming little girl who reads so much, it’s probably easier to ask which books she hasn’t read. Even William Shakespeare’s prose is no match for the mind of littlest Wormwood. “If you can’t read words, you have no chance at books,” she opines.

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Matilda (DaSilva) finds a warm heart in Miss Honey (Melissa Harrison) in “Matilda the Musical.” (Jenni Chapman photo)

If the show was just about a little girl with idiotic parents and the other awful adults who encompass her life, the show wouldn’t rise much above a single note. But the heart of this piece is in our knowledge that there are those in the story who are fighting for her. They come in the form of the sweetheart librarian Mrs. Phelps (a delightful Joy Osbourne) and the person who ultimately becomes Matilda’s biggest cheerleader and protector, Miss Honey (a sweet turn by Melissa Harrison).

While there are certainly those who have the best interests of Matilda at heart, the hilarious Miss Trunchbull (a big and bold performance from Tony Panaghetti) is the worst manifestation of the stern headmistress. Trunchbull does everything to relive past olympic hammer throwing glory, even using some pigtails to get a spin going as she chucks a student towards a world record distance.

CMT’s production captures the frenetic fun that comes with this silly willy world of Trunchbull’s totalitarianism and the creative children who wreck her party. It is also a vehicle where the heroes of the story can shine through, giving us peace of mind that Matilda is a little girl who is going to be alright.

The show is a handful that depends entirely on a small child to launch it into space, and the young DaSilva, who is actually 11 but doesn’t look a day over seven, is more than up for the task. Her hilarious proclamations of her gender to her parents who are convinced she is a boy are always funny, and her grace upon the stage is the stuff of performers at least two and three times her age. Her first big number “Naughty” is laid out as a great journey through her thought process.

Other numbers, which were choreographed sharply by Claire Alexander, are big, grand and pull no punches. “Loud,” which sees the ballroom dreams realized by Mrs. Wormwood and her flamboyant dance partner Rudolpho (a big and strong Rudy Fuentes), shreds. “This Little Girl” is a touching and warm aria from Harrison, one of only a few moments where the show slows down to take a breath. And while the opening number of “Miracle” suffers from diction that needs more clarity, so many of the ensemble numbers allow Alexander to tap into a wildly athletic group of performers. Panaghetti’s “The Hammer” in act one and the company’s “Revolting Children” as the show’s denouement highlight the many fantastic numbers the show provides.

At the end of the day, this production of “Matilda” is strong, filled with all the laughs and heart you need. There is no doubt that we can also learn that revenge is, in fact, a dish best served cold.

But it’s also served with way too much chocolate.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Children’s Musical Theater San Jose presents the Marquee production of “Matilda”
Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Dennis Kelly
Based on the book “Matilda” by Roald Dahl
The Word: An ensemble that rocks and a title character that rolls, CMT’s production is a treat for the senses and the imagination.
Stars: 5 out of 5
The Montgomery Theater
271 S Market St, San Jose, CA 95113
Running Time: Two hours, 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $30 – $35
For tickets, call (408) 288-5437 ext. 336 or visit www.cmtsj.org

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