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On Theater: 'Matilda' is high-voltage kid stuff

Young people, like my 10-year-old granddaughter, who saw the show with me Thursday, will especially be enthralled with "Matilda the Musical," the tuneful adaptation of Roald Dahl's popular children's story, now in residence at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Riley came prepared, having read Dahl's book and seen the movie, but even she was spooked by all the special sound and lighting effects that garnish this somewhat weird and wacky tale. When technical effects like these go south, it can result in a dreaded performance cancellation, as occurred Wednesday evening.

With all the bells and whistles in working order, "Matilda" took flight Thursday before an appreciative audience who didn't seem to mind the fact that actors' lines weren't always understandable, probably because of the kid-heavy cast striving to affect British accents.

"Matilda" tells the story of a little girl shunned by her parents and terrorized by her school's cruel headmistress. She develops powers to overcome her sad situation, but alas, they don't surface until nearly the end of the show, and then only briefly.

Until that point, the entertainment value is conveyed by the youngsters, a precocious ensemble well coordinated by director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling. Their group dance numbers, which rival any "Chorus Line" you've ever seen, are the highlight of the show.

Matilda herself is triple cast with three little girls alternating in this showcase role. Thursday's star was Jenna Weir, an extremely capable youngster who holds her own with some imposing adult talent. Others taking turns in the part are Hannah Levinson and Jamie MacLean.

The fearsome headmistress is even more so since "she" is a male actor in drag, Dan Chameroy, who resembles Cloris Leachman's Nurse Diesel in "High Anxiety." Chameroy conveys the fearsome power of educational authority as he strikes terror into the hearts of the students he reviles as "maggots."

Even more unlikable are Matilda's parents, Brandon McGibbon and Darcy Stewart, both of whom exhibit showbiz aspirations, even though McGibbon's character sells used cars (and turns back the mileage). Stewart exhibits some nifty dance moves with her partner, Stephen Diaz.

In this nest of vipers there must be one sympathetic figure, and in "Matilda" it's Paula Brancati as the sweet teacher aptly named Miss Honey, who lives in near-Dickensian poverty. Brancati possesses the finest voice of the cast and uses it effectively.

Another lovable character is the librarian, charmed by Matilda's made-up stories. Keisha T. Fraser takes on this role and offers a splendidly flustered interpretation.

With some homework on enunciation, "Matilda the Musical" would be a memorable adaptation. Just keep the technical wizardry intact.

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TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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IF YOU GO

What: "Matilda the Musical"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until Jan. 29

Cost: Start at $20

Information: (714) 556-2787 or scfta.org

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