If you've got to fight with the forces of evil, it's good to have Matilda Wormwood in your corner. She may be neglected by her amoral parents — a vapid mother and a used car salesman-father — but this mighty child is endowed with many gifts, including an ability to read well above her grade level, a vivid imagination and the power of telekinesis.
Matilda uses her strengths for good, even if she's tempted to exact revenge on those who have wronged her.
It's easy to root for Matilda, as embodied with charisma and ferocity by 11-year-old Filipina phenom Gabrielle Gutierrez in "Matilda the Musical," a touring production of the Broadway hit that's playing the Orpheum through Sunday. Skilled and self-assured, Gutierrez — who alternates in the role with two other youngsters — inhabited her character's moods and thoughts with naturalness in Wednesday's performance.
This is a dark story, but the pint-sized performer helps to make this adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1988 children's novel both intriguing and magnetic. With a book by Dennis Kelly plus lyrics and spooky music by Tim Minchin, the narrative often comes off like a remix of bits from a variety of sources, including Grimm's Fairy Tales and "Annie."
The short of it is: Matilda face a hostile environment both at home and at school. Her parents do not want her: Mr. Wormwood (Matt Harrington)hoped for a son, and insists on calling her "boy." Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) did not realize she was pregnant and, anyway, she'd rather be salsa dancing. Their callousness is matched by the cruel headmistress of Matilda's school, Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy).
Still, Matilda finds support from her teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles), who has her own story of loss, and librarian Mrs. Phelps (Keisha T. Fraser), an attentive listener who encourages Matilda's imaginative stories.
The music, conducted by Chris Nightingale, grabs you not because it's tuneful, per se, but because it complements the dark undertones in the story. The staging, by director Matthew Warchus ("God of Carnage," "Boeing-Boeing"), is efficient and deft, with seamless transitions and touches that heighten the tension. And there are some exciting bits of choreography by Peter Darling, including a jail-themed number.
A bit of parental advice: While it's true that "Matilda" centers on young people, the show's dark themes, rough language and gratuitously cruel adult characters makes it unsuitable for most preteens.
Ultimately, this show lives on the strength of the cast inhabiting these oddball characters. With Gutierrez leading the team, "Matilda" is surprisingly engaging.