To be honest, not too many months ago you couldn’t drag me into a theater to watch a musical play full of hyperactive brats. To this day, in fact, I generally believe young children are meant to be smiled at briefly then dismissed. I’m the guy who glares at children who run around restaurants screaming as if they’re at a playground. I own noise-cancelling headphones in case some inconsiderate parents on an airplane fail to drug their wailing babies with cough syrup. And I fully intend to formally petition the church usherettes to deal with all fidgety, loud-question-asking runts by forcibly imprisoning them in the soundproofed crying room at the back or better yet by kicking them out of Mass entirely.
But then I got involved with Atlantis Theatrical’s production of Matilda the Musical with nineteen kids. Yup, nineteen. [See disclosure statement below.]
At first, I was intrigued by their discipline.
My initial encounter with the Naughty Nineteen was at a briefing held after the auditions. To be cast in the musical, these kids had recently triumphed over more than a hundred other kids, and they were in full voice. Somehow a conga line got started. The youngest was six or seven years old at the time, but many were in Grade Four and overflowing with summer break energy. I remember feeling a throbbing begin at my temples. When our company manager took the mic and started talking, however, instantly the young actors were quiet and focused. Not a peep was heard from them for two whole hours. Amazing.
Through the months of preps and rehearsals, I’d see this scene repeated many times: kids being kids until it was time to be actors. At the rehearsal studio when the maggots, uh, kids were not in a scene, they’d be sitting cross-legged in a specifically designated area off to the side with their scripts in hand taking notes. When we moved into the cavernous Meralco Theater just before Halloween, the adults began teasing the kids about the place being haunted by a ghostly ballerina. So, when a real live bat began flying around the set, I think the shrieks from the kids were at least half real. Asked, however, what they’d do if the bat showed up during a performance, the answer was “The show must go on” and the Matilda (one of three) who was on stage at the time simply lifted the hood of her hoodie over her head and bravely soldiered on. Clearly, kids will be kids, but they can be better, too.
Then, I was awed by the talent.
Flashback to when I was one of the Workhouse Boys in Oliver!. We had one big production number for the song “Food Glorious Food”. (Hmmm, the anthem of my life?) All we had to do was twirl around the stage with our bowls of gruel, but we kept bumping into each other and sending our bowls flying off . . . Cut to the present. The choreography for each number in Matilda is intricate and technical—there is a definite movement for practically every beat of music—and the children have it all down pat. Every now and then a whole sequence will be changed. Our (super!) choreographer tells them what to do and within moments, the kids will have that down, too. They dance like stars, sing like they’re on “The Voice” plus they’re acting at performance-level all the time. Ang galing! When I was eight years old, I was asked to lead the school assembly in the Panatang Makabayan. I froze. Walang Promil nung araw. As I watch the Matildas deliver line after line, move to hit their marks on stage in sync with the musical scoring and the lights, in front of sellout crowds, I grit my teeth and worry until I realize that I should just sit back, relax and enjoy the show because these kids are awesome.
It helps that the adults in the cast set the bar very, very high. There are no weak actors in this show. You never ask why this guy or that girl is on stage. There is a reason Filipinos entertain the world, and here we have the best evidence. What gets me though is their generosity with their talent. All the adult members of our cast have taken the kids under their wings. They teach, encourage, advise, hug. The kids are good, but the adults around them make them better. Maybe this is the way to deal with kids.
Which brings me to the story.
Everything has come together. The special talents of the kids, the world-class acting of the adults, the genius of our director Bobby Garcia, the creativity and professionalism of his team, the book of Dennis Kelly, and the music and lyrics Tim Minchin . . . all of it and more combine to tell a compelling story. Frankly, when I read the children’s book a few months ago—it did not exist when I was a child—it struck me as being, well, a children’s book. The play, however, is much more. It tells the stories of unwanted and unloved children, as well as the stories of children who are “loved” so much that they only want to grow up. It takes the point of view that we should take control of our own stories, and that some ends justify some means.
Our theater kids get these grown-up messages across admirably well in the riotous production numbers, but most memorably in the quiet moments. The children in this musical have become maggots eating away at my brain. Sometimes when I’m alone, I actually find myself singing.
[Disclosure Statement: The author earns money when people watch MATILDA THE MUSICAL which runs until December 10 at the Meralco Theater. Tickets are available from Ticketworld.com]