‘Matilda’ triumphs over evil in VYT’s new production
By Bridgette Redman
The world has cruel people in it who delight in bullying the vulnerable and taking advantage of the weak.
Thankfully, the world is also filled with stories where good has triumphed over evil. Few people have created more memorable bullies than Roald Dahl, perhaps because he encountered them himself growing up in boarding schools as a child. However twisted his stories are, his heroes, usually children who have been abused by the adults in their life, manage to triumph.
Such is the case with “Matilda,” a story about a magical youngster whose tale has been told in book, movie and musical forms.
The musical is getting its nonprofessional Arizona premiere at the Valley Youth Theatre, a children’s theater, which has prepared many Broadway actors over the course of its 30-year history and even screen star Emma Stone, who thanked its artistic director, Bobb Cooper, in her Oscar acceptance speech for best actress.
Taking center stage from August 9 to August 25 at the Phoenix theater is Vivian Page Nichols, a 12-year-old who attends the Arizona School for the Arts. It’s her seventh production with Valley Youth Theatre and she calls this her dream role.
“I always loved the movie and then I saw the musical when it was touring at Gammage two years ago,” Nichols said. “It was such a cool set and the music is so awesome. Matilda has always been my dream role—it’s such a cool role.”
Matilda is a 5-year-old whose parents dislike her and see her as a bother. She’s starting school where she encounters the fierce and horrible Mrs. Agatha Trunchbull, played by Trevor Howell, a 16-year-old making his Valley debut, but who has performed many major roles at Shadow Mountain High School. Trunchbull delights in torturing the students as she finds children to be revolting.
However, Matilda also meets the gentle and kind Miss Honey, played by 19-year-old ASU sophomore Stephanie Larson, who has been in 10 VYT shows. Miss Honey recognizes Matilda’s genius and tries to get her the help she needs.
Matilda is no ordinary child. In addition to being a voracious reader, she has powers of telekinesis and is able to tell an unusual, prescient story.
Nichols identifies with the titular character in many ways, for they are both adventurous.
Cooper, who is also directing this show, said he saw the original cast perform it on Broadway a number of years ago and it instantly appealed to him—primarily the light that came at the end of the show and overcame the show’s darkness.
“It’s about adversity and rising above adversity,” Cooper said. “It’s about rising above bullying and trials and tribulations and having a focus and dedication to oneself as an individual no matter what the surroundings may be. Matilda keeps that place within herself sacred. Ultimately, because she doesn’t give in to those things around her and she stands up to the outside forces and doesn’t allow them to penetrate her, it works out for her in the end.”
Matilda learns she sometimes has to be naughty because the adults in her life don’t behave as they should. Nichols, who has a much more supportive family and is less mischievous, still can identify with Matilda’s actions. She shared a trick she once played.
“I went out walking with my mom one day and we saw a spider web. My mom was afraid she was going to get a spider on her, so we ran home,” Nichols said.
“We had this little clip with a spider on it, so I put it on her shoulder. It freaked her out. I wish I had got that on video.”
Cooper feels the message found in “Matilda” is important for adults and children. He recognizes some people find the show a bit on the dark side, but said even that is important.
“In a perfect world,” he said, “everything would be good and we would love each other and be supportive. We wouldn’t have wars and fights. But that’s unfortunately not our reality. If we color things to children without giving them the tools of strength and power and individuality, we’re doing a huge disservice to future generations.”
That said, he also insists he is not Tim Burton and he won’t be going so far into the darkness that you can’t see the light. Shows like “Matilda,” he said, teach children how to fight back against bullies, to stand up for themselves and to find strength within themselves.
“Matilda resonates with me as an individual and what I do and my love for children. It is why I do everything I can to help them find themselves and be true to themselves and to put their dreams in front of them and not be bullied, not to rest on their laurels and to make their dreams come true.”
Matilda creates a fictional world around her. Ultimately, she is rewarded for that and for the way she helps other people.
This show isn’t just for children, Cooper said. Even adults will enjoy the musical.
“It’s hilarious, it’s poignant,” Cooper said. “I think it can speak to all of us and the inner child that is in all of us. I don’t think it is childish or babyish at all. It is a show for all audiences.”
While “Matilda” has come through Arizona on tour, the Valley Youth Theatre production will mark the first time it is being produced in the state. The production has 41 young people, the oldest of whom is 19.
“We are a 31-year company for children producing top-quality shows,” Cooper said. “The value for your dollar is going to be just as good as one might consider a true professional theater. We’ve been likened to shows on Broadway. It’s going to be incredible. It’s going to knock people’s socks off and it won’t break the bank. They’re going to love it.”
Nichols, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of alumni like Stone. She is eager to share this musical with audiences.
“I think people should come see ‘Matilda,’” Nichols said. “It’s a pretty good lesson—you shouldn’t be bullying people. It’s also a really moving and suspenseful show.”