Valley Youth Theatre brings “Madagascar” to Herberger stage

Valley Youth Theatre’s “Madagascar” is onstage through Nov. 19 at the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix. Photos by John Buttel.

After years in captivity, with regular meals and an adoring public, Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo escape from their home in New York’s Central Park Zoo, with the help of some plotting penguins. Together, they go on an unexpected journey to the madcap world of King Julien’s Madagascar.

Valley Youth Theatre and the Herberger Theater Center are collaborating to bring these zany characters to life in the Arizona premiere of “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure,” Oct. 28-Nov. 19.

In “Madagascar,” Alex the Lion loves performing for his adoring crowds at the Central Park Zoo.

VYT is entering its 29th season and its 20th year presenting shows at the Herberger. Usually the lineup includes four shows at VYT’s location during the months of October, December, February and April, and two shows on Center Stage at the Herberger in August and June.

“This season we decided, for the first time, to team up with the Herberger Theater to produce our fall show,” said Bobb Cooper, Valley Youth Theatre’s producing artistic director, adding that he and Mark Mettes, president and CEO of the Herberger, have been working on this collaboration for a while. “We wanted it to be the right time and the right show.”

“Madagascar” marks VYT’s 40th show to open at the Herberger.

“What better way to celebrate our 20th year there?” Cooper said.

Based on the DreamWorks animated film, the show features musical direction by Tristan Peterson-Steinert, choreography by Katie Casey, lighting design by Bret G. Reese, costume design by Karol Cooper, sound design by Almir Lejlic and set design by Dori Brown.

“He’s a threatening lion with a mighty roar, but once he’s thrown out of his comfort zone, he freaks out, making for some hilarious moments,” says Hayden Skaggs, who plays Alex the Lion in the VYT production.

Taking his second role at VYT is 15-year-old Hayden Skaggs as Alex the Lion. A sophomore at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, he previously played John Darling in “Peter Pan.” Other credits include Eugene in “Grease” and Lewis in “Pippin” for Greasepaint Youtheatre, and Theo in “School of Rock” and Jack in “Into the Woods” for Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre.

“Playing Alex has been such a fun and rewarding experience for me, because he’s so unlike any other character I’ve played,” Hayden said. “He’s a threatening lion with a mighty roar, but once he’s thrown out of his comfort zone, he freaks out, making for some hilarious moments.”

Hayden calls attention to the “absolute professionalism” of the production, and he especially likes that the actors are “given the freedom to explore our characters in fun and interesting ways through the guidance of the production staff, which is very rare for a youth theater show.”

Making her VYT debut is 15-year-old Anastasia Rai as Gloria the Hippo. Other credits include being in the ensemble for “The Pajama Game” at Greasepaint, and Valerie Clark in “A Chorus Line” and Mercy Lewis in “The Crucible,” both at New School for the Arts and Academics in Tempe, where Anastasia is a sophomore.

Also making his VYT debut is 14-year-old Raymond Cusick as Melman the Giraffe. An eighth-grader at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix, Raymond plays the trumpet and piano and sings in the school choir. He was previously seen as Buddy the Elf in “Elf the Musical Jr.” at Desert Stages.

Plotting penguins add to the fun in VYT’s “Madagascar.”

Born into a musical family, Ira Hill (Marty the Zebra) has been performing from a young age. He has brought his talents as a jazz vocalist to such notable venues as the Garage in New York City, Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood and the E Spot Lounge in Los Angeles. VYT credits include “The Little Mermaid,” “Legally Blonde” and “The Wiz.”

Another VYT veteran is 14-year-old Riley Thornton, who plays the part of King Julien. “Madagascar” is his sixth show at VYT. Riley is in the eighth grade at South Valley Junior High in Gilbert.

“Madagascar” has many things to offer those who attend. In Hayden’s view, the main thing audiences will take away is the value of friendship. “Having a friend conquers all.”

And with all the talent involved, “Madagascar” will leave audiences with no choice but, as King Julien says, to “move it, move it!”

If you go: Oct. 28-Nov. 19; 7 p.m. Fridays; various times Saturdays; 12:30 and 4 p.m. Sundays. Herberger Theater Center, Stage West, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix. $17.50-$34.50. 602-252-8497, or