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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical
Valley Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Book of Mormon and Parade


Ronda Felton and
Vivian Paige Nichols

Photo by Memories by Candace
Valley Youth Theatre and its Producing Artistic Director Bobb Copper have a reputation for casting their shows with some of the most talented youth actors in the Valley. Their production of Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical, which Cooper directs, is no exception as it features a sensational group of young actors led by 12-year-old Vivian Paige Nichols who is delivering a superb performance as the misunderstood and unloved Matilda. While I have some issues with the show itself, Valley Youth Theatre's production, which is the Arizona regional premiere of the musical, features fairly impressive creative aspects and sure-footed direction, which, when combined with the fantastic cast, helps to offset some of the shortcomings in this entertaining and funny, family-friendly show.

Based on Roald Dahl's children's novel, Matilda tells the story of a young girl who is treated poorly by her family members who don't love or understand her. Her dimwitted father often calls her a boy and her clueless mother didn't even realize she was pregnant until the day Matilda was born. Matilda finds escape from her rotten home life in the world of books and storytelling and through her daily trips to the local library where the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, is always excited to see Matilda in order to hear the latest installment in a story Matilda makes up to tell her. The dreaded, sadistic Miss Trunchbull, who thinks all kids are "maggots," is the headmistress at Matilda's school. Fortunately, Matilda finds solace in the kind but mousy Miss Honey who sees how intelligent Matilda is; together they help each other overcome their obstacles and face their demons.

Director Bobb Cooper has found an incredible cast of youth actors to bring these characters to life. With a beautiful singing voice and a firm stage presence, Vivian Paige Nichols delivers a truly knock-out performance as Matilda, instilling strength and an endless amount of fearlessness. We instantly see from Nichols' clear portrayal how smart Matilda is, but Nichols never pushes the character into being too cocky or believing she is better than those around her just because she is intelligent, which works beautifully to create a realistic character the audience can love and root to succeed.

Trevar Howell also creates a lovable character, but one that you love to hate, as the mean and sadistic Miss Trunchbull. Howell looks like he's having a ball playing this horrible woman, though not much is done to mask the fact that it is a man playing the part. That doesn't detract from the enjoyment of watching Howell perform and, having the part played by a man, as it was in the original productions of the show, adds a few fun, comical moments to the character.

In supporting roles, Stephanie Larson is full of warmth and love as Miss Honey, Matilda's schoolteacher who, once she realizes how smart and unloved Matilda is, takes her under her wing. Larson delivers a moving version of one of the show's best songs, "My House," and creates a woman you care for and, just like Matilda, hope to see overcome the obstacles in her life. Jared Barbee is a hoot as Matilda's self-centered father. He brings a playful nature to the role and has a humorous way of moving that adds plenty of comical pops to the character. Jessica Fink is equally as good as Matilda's mother, a self-absorbed woman who clearly has no interest in being a mother, and Ronda Felton instills Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who befriends Matilda, with an abundance of kindness and an inquisitive nature.

Even though Howell, Larson, Barbee, Fink and Felton are only just a few years older than the group of actors who play Matilda and the students in her cast, they all deliver mature performances, believably playing much older characters. They also all have lovely connections with the younger actors, which adds to the enjoyment of the production. Riley Thornton is impressive as a character in the story that Matilda tells, Wyatt Camoff and Ava Rylee Newton both shine as two of Matilda's class mates, and Preston Kersting delivers some fun moves as Mrs. Wormwood's dance partner, Rudolpho.

Dennis Kelly's book follows the plot of Dahl's novel fairly closely, and the score by Tim Minchin features several toe-tapping, memorable tunes including the second act opener, "When I Grow Up," and Matilda's first act solo, "Naughty." However, while this is a fun and enjoyable show, I have a few quibbles with a few things. While she is the title character, there are times when the outlandish natures of the supporting characters push Matilda into the background. Even Cooper's staging puts her far upstage in the many scenes set in her schoolroom, practically hidden behind the other students and their desks. Also, the musical plays up Trunchbull and makes her into a force to be reckoned with, which makes her missed when she isn't on stage. And, for such a horrible character, Trunchbull's demise is more of a whimper than a bang. On top of this, the thick English accents the cast use don't help in the numerous songs that feature the entire cast singing overlapping lyrics, or in the several scenes where Matilda is telling the story she's created, in which she and the characters in her story speak in unison and it can barely be made out what either of them are saying.

Fortunately, Cooper's direction ensures the comedy doesn't overpower Matilda's plight and that there is plenty of warmth and emotion in the message of the story: love and kindness can conquer all. Cooper also has a lot of fun with his supporting cast, all of whom embody their cartoonish characters with glee. He also instills a playful sense of fun in the show while keeping the energy high. Nathalie Velasquez's choreography is joyous and frenzied, with some high-flying salsa steps in the song "Loud."

While the set is a rental and a vast departure from the Tony winning Broadway set design which looked like cartoon-style Scrabble tiles had exploded all over the set and set pieces formed various words (such as "quiet" in the library scene), it works beautifully to provide a sense of realism and to focus on books and reading by surrounding the stage with huge, wooden library stacks of books. Karol Cooper's costumes are gorgeous and perfect while also playing up the comical characters, with vibrant and outlandish designs and materials. Jeff A. Davis' lighting design paints some beautiful stage images with lovely touches for the fantasy and storytelling scenes. Music director Mark Fearey delivers some impressive vocals from his leads, many lush harmonies from the ensemble, and a lovely sound from the large orchestra.

Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical is a fantasy-filled musical that delivers whimsical characters, an endearing lead character, and a moving ending that, fortunately, is devoid of being overly sentimental. While it may not be a perfect show, Valley Youth Theatre's production features a very gifted cast who throw themselves into their roles while getting plenty of laughs and also managing to deliver some impactful emotional moments as well.

Valley Youth Theatre's Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical, through August 25, 2019, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-252-8497 or at www.vyt.com.

Director: Bobb Cooper
Musical Supervisor & Director: Mark Fearey
Choreographer: Nathalie Velasquez
Costume Designer: Karol Cooper
Lighting Designer: Jeff A. Davis
Sound Designer: Brian Honsberger

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Big Kid: Katerina Anderson
Mr. Wormwood: Jared Barbee
Big Kid: Abbey Bernard
Ensemble: Grace Bush
Michael: Reese Cantu
Big Kid: Kylan Chait
Bruce: Wyatt Camoff
Ensemble: Caden Christel
Ensemble: Kate Daley
Big Kid: Olivia Fearey
Mrs. Phelps: Ronda Felton
Mrs. Wormwood: Jessica Fink
Big Kid: Gabriella Grasso
Big Kid: Ian Gray
Ensemble: Kendall Hook
Agatha Trunchbull: Trevar Howell
Nigel: Michael Jaramillo
Rudolpho: Preston Kersting
Miss Honey: Stephanie Larson
Alice: Brooklyn Martin
Tommy: Aaron McCaskill
Big Kid: Nathaniel McNamara
Acrobat: Anna Mettes
Hortensia: Maddie Sue Miller
Big Kid: Sage Emerson Mitchell
Ensemble: Rachel Nathan
Lavender: Ava Rylee Newton
Matilda: Vivian Paige Nichols
Ensemble: Jaden Roesch
Sergei: Carson Roubison
Big Kid: Ava Saba
Ensemble: Erin Deines Shumacher
Children's Entertainer: Prescott Smidt
Ensemble: Olivia Smith
Eric: Elliot Noah Thompson
Escapologist: Riley Thornton
Ensemble: Justin Vaught
Ensemble: Jessica Wastchak
Ensemble: Faith Wheelington
Amanda: Kate Williams
Doctor: Andy Wissink


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