Like high-energy dance numbers? Catchy songs? What about a young girl who dares to take a stand and change her own destiny?
Then you’ll want to see “Matilda The Musical” on Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix Aug. 9-25. Valley Youth Theatre opens its 31st season with the Arizona premiere of what has been described as a “joyous girl-power romp.”
Armed with a vivid imagination, a sharp mind and a love for reading, Matilda must endure the cruelty of her parents and the meanness of her school’s headmistress — Miss Trunchbull — who hates children and enjoys thinking up new punishments for them. Fortunately, Matilda has the support of her teacher, the kind and understanding Miss Honey, not to mention her own cleverness and courage.
Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s book “Matilda,” “Matilda The Musical” was adapted by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. It had its West End debut in London in 2011 and ran on Broadway from April 11, 2013 to Jan. 1, 2017.
Directing the show is Bobb Cooper, VYT’s producing artistic director. “Matilda” is the 150th show he has produced for the company in 23 years.
“I selected ‘Matilda’ to open the season, because it’s right up our alley,” he says. When he saw the Broadway production, he “especially appreciated how the actors came into the house [and] made you feel like a part of the show. We’ve been doing that for years at VYT, so I’ve always loved that direct engagement with the audience.”
Mark Fearey is handling music direction; Nathalie Velasquez, choreography; Karol Cooper, costume design; Jeff A. Davis, lighting design and Brian Honsberger, sound design. Forty-one young actors from across the Valley bring their talents to the Phoenix production.
“This show is a great showcase for us to feature the talent of young performers,” says Cooper. “I guarantee, they will knock it out of the park!”
In the title role of Matilda, her seventh for VYT, is 12-year-old Vivian Paige Nichols, a seventh-grader at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix. Her other VYT roles included Kate in “Annie,” Piglet in “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail,” Lamb in “Charlotte’s Web,” and more. Vivian says VYT is her favorite place to be, “like my second home.” She first saw “Matilda” at ASU Gammage and says the title character is her dream role. She loves how Matilda shows that you can overcome negativity and hatefulness.
“She has a great personality, and I can relate to her, because [she] can be a little bit naughty,” Vivian says. “I love how she tells her story about the escapologist and the acrobat.”
Vivian hopes audiences will take away “that you can get past negativity, and not everything in life will always be fair, but that does not need to get you down.”
Making his VYT debut is 16-year-old Trevar Howell as Agatha Trunchbull, who rules Crunchem Hall with an iron fist. A junior at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, Trevar has played Lonny Barnett in “Rock of Ages,” Strygal in “Anon(ymous)” and Sir Lancelot in “Spamalot.” He also volunteers as an usher at the Herberger Theater Center.
And yes, Agatha Trunchbull is female. So why cast a male in the role? “Because this is the first time many in Arizona have seen this production, I wanted us to stay as true as we could to the extraordinary Broadway musical experience,” says Cooper. Trunchbull was originally portrayed by award-winning actor Bertie Carvel and later replaced by Christopher Sieber.
Trevar finds most of the characters in the show “really quirky and fun,” but he says he loves Miss Trunchbull. “She’s such an evil lady, but you can tell she has a sad backstory. It’s exciting to break down her character.”
In her 10th VYT role as Miss Honey is Stephanie Larson, a 19-year-old sophomore at Arizona State University. Previous roles include Alice in “The Secret Garden,” Kanga in “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail” and Meg in “Little Women.”
Playing Mrs. Wormwood — who is more interested in ballroom dancing than being Matilda’s mother and who values looks over books — is Jessica Fink, a 16-year-old homeschooled senior from Ahwatukee. For VYT, she also played Torrey in “Freaky Friday” and Mother in “Tuck Everlasting.”
In his fifth VYT show is 18-year-old Jared Barbee as Mr. Wormwood, Matilda’s father, an unscrupulous used-car salesman. Jared is a graduate of the Odyssey Institute for Advanced and International Studies in Buckeye. He previously played Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” Gander in “Charlotte’s Web” and Lord Farquaad in “Shrek.”
Cooper believes “Matilda The Musical” conveys three powerful lessons: “How strength can overcome adversity, no matter how small you are. How you can rise above any challenge if you hit it head-on. And how important it is for all of us to love and care for all children.”
“Actually,” he adds, “those three things accurately sum up the history and philosophy of VYT.”