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Never Taken the Family to a Play? Here’s Your Chance

Matilda The Musical, at the Walnut Street Theatre until Jan. 6, is well suited for a first-time trip to the theater with the kids.

Above, ensemble, Matilda the Musical at Walnut Street Theatre. Below, Laura Giknis (Miss Honey) and Ian Merrill Peakes (Principal Trunchbull). Bottom, Jemma Bleu Greenbaum (Matilda).

Photos by Mark Garvin

If you’re not a family that’s accustomed to taking in live theater performances, it can be daunting to plan your first one.

Is the show right for the kids? Will they be bored with analog entertainment? Will you be bored? Will the family come away with something that was worth the time and expense?

Maltida The Musical at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, which opened Wednesday and runs through Jan. 6, is an example of all the things that can go right for a first–time family excursion to see a play.

It’s a show that appeals to kids but sophisticated in story, song, talent, and production so that adults will find it entertaining. You might even forget you brought the kids along.

But don’t, because there are plenty of lessons to talk with them about on the way home or, if they are too worn out after the nearly three-hour performance, the next day.

The story revolves around Maltida, who was unwanted from before the day she was born by a mother and father who come to view her early interest in books as a useless oddity to be discouraged.

Matilda the Musical at Walnut Street Theatre

When Maltida starts school, she finds that it is a prison of drudgery designed to squash individuality, creativity and, for that matter, learning, thanks to a bully of a principal who views her charges as pests to be tormented into submission until all signs of intelligence and joy have been extinguished.

This would be dreary stuff if not for the delightful music and dance by a cast of youngsters, all from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, and young adults, who turn the miserable into the melodious.

Principal Trunchbull’s bullying is played as wild slapstick, making her, for the audience at least, the class clown.

In case you’ve never read Roald Dahl’s book on which the musical is based, or seen the movie or Broadway versions, we won’t go further into the plot except to say, as you’d expect, all ends well.

The Walnut Street Theatre is intimate, so the kids will feel immersed in the action, which is lively without pyrotechnics or overly loud noises that would startle young ones.

The intermission is a chance for you to catch them up on the story so far. It’s also a good time to look at the theater’s memorabilia, which is displayed in the lobbies. As the oldest continuously operating theater in the English-speaking world, it has more than 200 years of its history on display, including photos of early productions. It’s like a sneaky field trip to an historical site.

If the lessons of the story or the theater itself don’t worm their way into their minds, perhaps the work of some of the young performers will.

From pint-sized to teen-aged, the talented crew is a testament to the value of practice and a demonstration about when to work as team and when to standout.

Jemma Bleu Greenbaum

Maltida, in particular, is asked to not only sing, but deliver long monologues. Others have less mentally strenuous tasks, but a couple do have their star turns where they flash on the charisma and charm the audience, then return to fitting in as part of the ensemble.

Maybe the hardest post-play discussion will be about when it is appropriate for a kid to be revolting and when it is not.

But Matilda The Musical gives you an ideal and entertaining context in which to take up the topic.

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