Matilda (Nicole Scimeca, L) impresses Miss Honey (Lauren Drewello, R) and her classmates with her intellectual skills in the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts’ production of the musical “Matilda.” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Matilda (Nicole Scimeca, L) impresses Miss Honey (Lauren Drewello, R) and her classmates with her intellectual skills in the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts’ production of the musical “Matilda.” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Watching Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts’ production of the musical “Matilda” Friday, I had a variety of thoughts about the hardships and cruelty some children have to endure.

Bullying. Emotional, psychological and/or physical abuse. Poverty. Absentee parents.

Luckily, for Matilda, she escapes that life with the help of Miss Honey, but not every child is so fortunate.

“Matilda” is based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl – which admittedly I never read – but like his other books (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach”) it’s a little on the dark side.

It’s clear before the musical even starts that books and reading are an important part of Matilda’s life. There are stacks of books hanging from the ceiling of the stage, and more stacks of books around the stage. Matilda (Nicole Scimeca) carries at least one book with her throughout most of the show, and she talks about books that most 5-year-olds probably will never read.

The show starts with a big musical number of “Miracle,” with the children in the show singing about how their parents called them “little miracles.” Parents eventually join in and take pictures of their precious little miracles. The number celebrates the miracle of life.

Then it goes five years back as Mrs. Wormwood (Bella Coppola) is seeing a doctor about what’s wrong with her. She’s eager to get to a ballroom dancing competition with Rudolpho (Henry Julian Gendron), but the doctor (Aaron James McKenzie) tells her she’s pregnant and about to have a baby. She’s shocked – and obviously not the brightest crayon in the box – but doesn’t want to be pregnant because she has to get to the competition. Mr. Wormwood (Anthony Cataldo) comes in asking for his son, and never wants to accept he was given a daughter. The doctor doesn’t understand how the Wormwoods don’t seem to understand the miracle they’ve been given.

Matilda’s life with her parents and dimwitted brother Michael (Parker Irwin) doesn’t get much better from that.

But speaking of the Wormwoods, Cataldo and Coppola are perfect in their roles.

Coppola has big hair put up in a faux mohawk and is dressed to go ballroom dancing at a moment’s notice. She only cares about herself, her dancing and her good looks and obviously doesn’t see children as any more than a hindrance. Both Coppola and Cataldo not only perfectly stay in character during the entire show, but they effectively maintain their accents very well.

Watching Cataldo as Mr. Wormwood made me think of Homer Simpson, Al Bundy and Tim Curry rolled all up in one. The attire and hair were so well chosen for him, it accentuates his cartoonish behavior. You couldn’t ask for a better actor in his role.

Cataldo gets a scene after intermission where he breaks the fourth wall much like Deadpool. He goes on an anti-reading diatribe that is hilarious. Cataldo really makes the moment his.

The musical is about Matilda, but a sequel titled “Meet the Wormwoods” could be a comedic treasure of its own, especially with Cataldo and Coppola in the leads.

However, Matilda’s parents never understand or appreciate her, often exposing her to emotional and verbal abuse, leaving the child to her own devices, and for that the characters can’t be celebrated too much. But Cataldo and Coppola are sublime in their portrayals.

Besides being ultra-smart, Matilda’s other gift is storytelling. Throughout the show, she tells the librarian Mrs. Phelps (Cayla Christine Primous) a story about an acrobat and escapologist. The love story not only captivates Phelps, but Scimeca tells it exceptionally well with a lot of emotion. The importance of the story comes out toward the end of the show.

Obviously, children are a big part of the musical, starting with Scimeca as Matilda. From Chicago, 11-year-old Scimeca does an amazing job in the big role of a 5-year-old who reads, tells stories and stands up for herself and others. Scimeca didn’t forget a line or miss a step during Friday’s performance, showcasing her bright future ahead of her. If there’s a role for her in the future, I’d be eager to see how well she does.

There were a couple of other kids that stood out to me, too, though all the young ones did well.

Cordelia Grandon as Lavender – Matilda’s self-proclaimed best friend – seemed very confident and professional with her lines. Tanner Miller as Bruce was funny, especially during a scene involving a cake, as was Nate Friedberg as Nigel. Many of the child performers are local, and they made it clear that there’s some theatrical talent in the area. They just need the opportunity to shine, and the Wagon Wheel definitely provides that for them with “Matilda.”

Of course, the school children don’t have to worry about Matilda’s parents. Their biggest concern is their school headmistress, Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Andy Robinson).

At no point in the show does Trunchbull pretend she even likes kids. She abhors them and says as much.

She’s tall and manly, thus being played by Robinson makes perfect sense. She’s the kind of woman that would even make men cower. She’s like the female version of Lurch from “The Addams Family,” except she’s loud, commanding and purely evil. She not only verbally abuses children, but also psychologically and physically.

Though the show does go to some dark corners, there’s plenty of laughs to be had in it. When Trunchbull is pulling on Nigel’s ears, they comically are stretched out like silly putty. When Matilda wants to get back at her father for something he did or said, she superglues his hat or puts hair dye in his hair tonic.

It’s the kind of humor you’d expect in a classic “Bugs Bunny” cartoon.

The one adult in the show who is not a total subhuman jerk is Miss Honey (Lauren Drewello). Played by Drewello, Miss Honey is sweet but greatly intimidated by Trunchbull. She wants to stand up for Matilda against the Wormwoods, and against Trunchbull for all the children, but she also had a rough childhood and lacks the bravery until the children show her the way.

There are a lot of good voices in this show, but Drewello had an amazing one that caught my ear. Her voice soared on the emotional songs, like “This Little Girl,” and left me clamoring for more solos from her.

Of all the songs in the musical, I’m going to have to be conventional and choose “When I Grow Up” as my favorite. The kids, Matilda and Miss Honey not only nailed this song, but it’s a good reminder of how adulting is not as fun as we pictured it would be as children.

My rating of “Matilda” (out of four): 3.

“Matilda" is at the theater through Saturday. Tickets can be purchased at the Wagon Wheel box office at 2515 E. Center St., Warsaw, or by phone at 574-267-8041.  The website is at www.wagonwheelcenter.org.