It’s not often that “revolting” children get a standing ovation – but that’s exactly what will happen starting this week week when nearly 40 Gilbert and other East Valley kids charge the stage in “Matilda The Musical.”
The Tony Award-winning show, which has captivated audiences of all ages worldwide, is being presented by Gilbert’s Actor’s Youth Theatre at the Zao Theatre 550 S. Ironwood Drive in Apache Junction June 10-26 at 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays.
“Matilda” tells the story of a little girl with astonishing wit, intelligence and psychokinetic powers. She’s unloved by her cruel parents but impresses her schoolteacher, the lovable Miss Honey.
They develop a powerful bond, but school life isn’t completely smooth sailing: headmistress Miss Trunchbull hates children and loves thinking up new punishments for those who don’t abide by her rules.
And while the story does have sad moments, Matilda proves triumphant in the end.
“I love the theme of this show along with the message that even though sometimes life’s not fair and things aren’t right, you’re never too young to try to fix it,” said 12-year-old Maddie Sue Miller of Gilbert, who plays the role.
“Matilda is kind even though she wasn’t shown kindness,” Maddie Sue added. “She is smart and brave and stands up for herself and others, even though she had nobody at home to stand up for her.”
It’s a theme that director and Mesa resident Lucy Garner hopes to drive home.
“I think the relevance of ‘Matilda’ in today’s society is especially poignant,” said Garner. “My goal is for the audience to feel the opposition between good vs. evil, acceptance vs. rejection, youth vs. age, and intelligence vs. ignorance.
“Through the eyes of a gifted and spunky 5-year-old, we learn that with a little moral courage, good can triumph over evil, and we can be the authors of our own life stories.”
“Matilda” delivers these lessons through high-energy dance numbers and more than a dozen songs.
“‘Matilda’ is such a fun play to be in,” said Hayden Moulton 15, of Gilbert. “The music is different than any other play. It is harsher and faster. The lyrics are very well written. They tell the story through the songs.”
But along with the life lessons is a healthy dose of fun – and this is especially true in the set design, which came together over the course of six weeks and hundreds of production hours.
“The show is written from the perspective of the children, so a lot of the elements are larger than life,” said Stephen Hohendorf, artistic director of Actor’s Youth Theatre. “Matilda’s world consists of oversized books that seamlessly open and close to reveal different settings. The entire proscenium is covered in Scrabble tiles that look like they’re falling right out of the bag.”
Of course, the youth performers are the true highlight of the production. Since the first rehearsal on April 27, they have worked diligently to bring their characters to life – whether they’re funny, loud, fierce or crazy.
Gilbert teen Natalie Smith, 13, said her character, Mrs. Phelps “is an outside-the-box thinking character who loves a good story just like me.
“To me, Mrs. Phelps is even crazier than Ms. Frizzle from ‘The Magic School Bus’ and will always look for the good in others,” Natalie said. “I am so excited to play her and excited to see how wacky I can be in this role.”
Maddie Sue has found the illuminating in many ways.
“The main thing I have learned from this experience is character development and that even though I’m saying what is written in the script, my interpretation and how I develop the character of Matilda will be different than someone else’s interpretation of Matilda in some way, shape or form,” said Maddie Sue.
“I love that our director encourages us to create our character as we see her because we end up seeing ourselves in the character.”
The kids are thrilled to be back on stage after a long hiatus, which, for many, put an abrupt stop to the thing they loved most.
“After such a long break due to COVID, I thought that it would be hard coming back and that I might end up feeling like an outsider, but almost immediately, I felt like I had never left,” said Saniya Sapakie, 12, of Gilbert, who plays Lavender.
“I had been going through some rough stuff with friends from school and I felt alone and sad, but when rehearsals started, I was back to my regular self in days,” Saniya added. “I’m so excited to be back with my friends and cannot wait for the performance.”
The cast and directors are hustling to put the finishing touches on “Matilda,” spending 15-20 hours a week polishing their dance numbers, fine-tuning their harmonies and blocking their scenes.
“Despite our differences, talents, and especially our ages, we as a cast have come together to put on a spectacular musical that teaches everyone of all ages to find their voice and use it for the good, for the little guys and underdogs,” said Natalie Smith, 13, of Gilbert.
Indeed, “Matilda” has won 99 international awards – including 24 for Best Musical.
“The story of Matilda is so interesting. The messages are really cool, like about how being smart is a really cool thing and how people who try to stop you from being smart do not do well,” said Hayden Moulton, 15, Gilbert.
Gilbert residents in the cast include Zach Burgess, Aaron Clark, Valerie Codling, Liam Delgado, Caleb Dupree, Andrew Earls, Catherine Earls, Charlie Hall, Maddie Sue Miller, Dianna Hammond, Hayden Moulton, Mina Moulton, Seraphina Nevels, Emma Owens, Saniya Sapakie, Natalie Smith, Abbi Spector, Lexi Tidwell and Bonnie Wanstreet.
Laura Wanstreet, who is Bonnie’s mother, was costume designer and choreographer is Jessi Rodriguez, also of Gilbert. Set designers were Mickey Bryce, Mesa, and Tanja Bauerle, Gilbert.
Tickets are $20 in advance/$22 day-of and are available at aytaz.org/tickets or by calling 480-907-7050. Group discounts are available. Performances are expected to sell out quickly.