Musical follows magical 5-year-old who forges a better life for herself

“Miss Trunchbull” (Tressa Bender) holds disdain for children like “Matilda” (Izabel Stevens) and delights in dreaming up new ways to torture them. (Lucy Levy-Longini, not pictured, also plays the role of “Matilda.”) Photo courtesy Chris Foster

By Calvin Nuttall

South Valley Civic Theatre audiences will experience the magic of imagination with their latest production “Matilda the Musical.” The show tells the story of a 5-year-old girl who stands up in the face of abuse to prove bravery, tenacity and intelligence can triumph over cruelty.

Directed by Geoffrey Ward, the show opens June 23 at the Morgan Hill Community Playhouse. It’s based on the award-winning 1988 children’s novel “Matilda” by Roald Dahl, which has also been adapted into films in 1996 and 2022.

Leading an ensemble cast of all ages, the role of “Matilda” is shared by Izabel Stevens and Lucy Levy-Longini, who will take turns portraying the fiery youngster.

“She’s very brave, and she likes to stand up for herself,” Stevens said. “She’s been traumatized a lot, but she knows that she has to write her own story, and people can’t write it for her.”

Matilda’s attitude draws the ire of the show’s antagonist, her school’s cruel headmistress “Miss Trunchbull.” Trunchbull holds disdain for children and delights in dreaming up new ways to punish troublemakers in order to “break” them. She is portrayed by Tressa Bender, who recently directed SVCT’s children’s show “Honk! Jr.”

“Matilda is very smart and independent,” Levy-Longini said. “But she has this horrible headmistress, and she is just terrible and evil. Basically, Matilda is the only one who is not scared of her, and all of the other children are, so she stands up for them.”

The story escalates when Matilda discovers she has magical powers granting her the ability to move objects telekinetically. Naturally, this power is put to use for rebellion and humor.

“There is a lot going on in ‘Matilda’ when you look at it,” Bender said. “It’s a story about a child who is very ignored and very alone finding her voice, finding her people. It (her magical power) comes to her in the time of need when she feels the most desperate.”

Full of pranks and magical mischief, the light tone of “Matilda” belies the seriousness of the topics it is built upon, particularly that of child abuse.

“It’s about children having the power to rise above their abusers,” Bender said. “There are a lot of funny moments, but it tackles very serious subjects. That give-and-take makes it a compelling and fun story, and something I think everybody will enjoy.”

The musical is co-produced by SVCT board members Marilyn Pifer and Mary Beth Anderson.

Lucy Levy-Longini, as “Matilda,” shares a scene with Evandra Aurelia, as “Miss Jennifer Honey,” in the South Valley Civic Theatre’s musical. Photo courtesy Chris Foster


“We’re like yin and yang,” Anderson said. “Nowadays, producing is such a task, with these shows getting more and more complicated, so I asked my friend, Marilyn, to help me. We do really well together.”

“I don’t know which of us is the yin and which is the yang,” Pifer said. “But we complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses pretty well.”

The emergence of Matilda’s magical powers midway through the story created a particular challenge for the production crew, Anderson said. To achieve the visual effect of telekinesis, they had to get creative using special effects that have never been tried on the Playhouse stage.

“We weren’t exactly sure how we were going to pull it off,” Pifer said. “There are a lot of moving parts in this production. There is a little bit of theatrical ‘magic’ in this show, and we need to make sure that the magic works correctly. No spoilers, but there are some cool things that happen.”

While she stressed the importance of addressing the serious topic of child abuse portrayed in “Matilda,” Pifer also cautioned these moments in the show may be shocking to an unprepared viewer.

“There are some scenes where it will appear that children are being hurt,” Pifer said. “They aren’t. We take the safety of our cast very seriously, and it is all done with tricks. Just like the disclaimers at the end of movies, we can say, ‘No children were harmed in the  making of this show.’”

As excited as producers are for the practical effects, so too are the cast and crew looking forward to performing alongside an exceptional orchestra, Anderson said.

“The sound is going to be amazing,” she said. “We’re really excited to have received funding to bring in an orchestra of experienced musicians that have agreed to work with us. We are a musical theater, and we want to put on the best musical that we can. With the challenges of AB5, it has been very hard on community theaters.”

California’s Assembly Bill 5 (commonly known as the “gig-worker bill”), which went into effect in 2020, changed how many types of contract and freelance jobs are classified. This has had a limiting effect on the ways community theaters like SVCT can spend money on things like hiring musicians, Anderson said.

“It is very complex, but we are successfully navigating the restrictions,” she said. “There is a reason we have been around for 50 years, and it comes down to us being an all-volunteer organization. But times are changing, and we have a lot of challenges ahead of us. One theater after the next is folding because they can’t afford to stay in business.”

In spite of this, SVCT is growing, Pifer said. She cited the theater’s expanding base of popularity, attracting actors from beyond the immediate Morgan Hill and Gilroy communities to join the cast of “Matilda.”

“One of the things that has been very exciting is we have drawn a lot of folks into the cast who have never played at SVCT,” she said. “We still have local actors, but it is encouraging that people from outside our area were drawn to our community theater. That tells me SVCT must be doing something right.”

Calvin Nuttall is a freelance reporter and Morgan Hill resident.

Co-Producer Marilyn Pifer
Co-Producer Mary Beth Anderson
Director Geoffrey Ward
Vocal Director Director Bobbie Hosfeldt-Ward
Choreographer Christine Carillo
Stage Manager Clara Shem-Tov
Music Director Ron Bowman
Costumer Kimberly Lynch
Lighting Designer B Harnett
Sound Designer Dave Raimen
Dramaturg Robin Harris
Matilda Wormwood
(6/23, 6/25, 7/1, 7/2, 7/8, 7/14)
Izabel Stevens
Matilda Wormwood
(Preview, 6/24, 6/30, 7/7, 7/9, 7/15)
Lucy Levy-Longini
Miss Agatha Trunchbull Tressa Bender
Miss Jennifer Honey Evandra Aurelia
Mr. Harry Wormwood Jason Eves
Mrs. Zinnia Wormwood Colleen Havey
Michael Wormwood Miriam Shem-Tov
Mrs. Phelps Reggie Reynolds
Bruce Bogtrotter Jase Puente
Lavender Glottlestop Kaileya De La Serna
Amanda Thripp Ava Meehan
Nigel Miriam Shem-Tov
Eric Ethan Hecht
Alice Kelly Kobata
Hortensia Ashlen Hsu
Tommy Dara Hargreaves
The Big Kids Anelise Chavez
Brielle Johnson
Chloe Grotz
Coraline Christian
Ava Rabkin
The Little Kids Annabella Zambataro
Danielle Bergot
Izabel Stevens
 Lucy Levy-Longini
Tristan Duarte
The Escapologist Sam Machado
The Acrobat Riley Brown
Rudolfo Sam Machado
Sergei Jaime Chavez
Doctor Kat Ares
The Parents Giacomo Vaccaro
Kat Ares
Lexie Mallette
Stacia Stuart