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Each summer, PlayMakers Repertory Company's Youth Conservatory performs a fully produced show. This year's presentation is a musical based on a Doris Betts short story, "The Ugliest Pilgrim." Named for its main character, Violet: A Musical was adapted by Brian Crawley, who also wrote the show's libretto. The music is composed by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Shrek The Musical), using a number of different formats, including bluegrass, folk, gospel, and pop music.
Each season, the Conservatory screens and accepts 35 students (23 actors and 12 technicians), selected from a total of 17 North Carolina high schools. These students learn every aspect of producing a full-scale musical from start to finish, including designing and building a set, rehearsals, song and dance, and costumes; every aspect of a play normally produced by PRC is attended to by this group of actors and technicians. In producing Violet, director and choreographer Matthew Steffens has involved all 23 actors in full-scale dance numbers and also assigned as many students as possible a solo song to sing, giving each a chance to shine on stage. Employing a pop combo of five, musical director Mark Lewis leads on piano, accompanied by guitar, drums, violin, and cello.
Violet has grown up in Spruce Pine, NC, on her father's farm. Having suffered a nasty accident at the age of 13, Violet has a terribly disfiguring scar across her face. We never see the actual scar; the play does not call for the actress to have one. We are left to wonder if Violet feels her "ugliness" more from shame and self-pity than she does from its actual physical properties. We see the lead character in two different portrayals: Young Vi (Lili Whittier) and Violet (Ainsley Seiger). Young Vi, for the most part, spends her time on her father's (Connor Lewis) farm, represented by the upper deck of the Paul Green Theatre's set. Violet, now 25, sets out for Tulsa, OK, by bus, in order to be "healed" by a televangelist Preacher (Thomas Cassidy). In addition to startling everyone she encounters, Violet meets a number of different characters, chief among them being a pair of soldiers, Monty (Wilson Plonk) and Flick (Presyce Baez).
When Violet begins her pilgrimage, the year is 1964. Flick, who is black, is quick to point out that only a couple of years earlier he would not have been allowed to ride up front with Monty and Violet. As it is, the three become fast friends on their way west. Violet has introduced herself to the boys by means of the game of poker; neither Flick nor Monty can figure out how a young country girl can play cards like she does ("Luck of the Draw" - Violet, Flick, Monty, Father).
When the bus finally deposits the trio in Memphis for the night, they decide to take in a show ("Lonely Stranger" - Music Hall Singer [Marcella Cox]). The trio has gotten rooms in a boarding house, and once Violet has gone to bed, she is visited by Monty and the two make love ("Lay Down Your Head" - Violet). Once Monty has returned to his room, the trio is sung to sleep by a trio of another sort, boarding house matron Almeta (Camryn Sherer) the Hotel Singer (Beth Siegling) and the Music Hall Singer.
Act II finds the bus further on the way to Tulsa, at its regular stop in Fort Smith, where our two soldiers must join their units. Violet shares a pair of difficult goodbyes, first with Flick ("Hard to Say Goodbye") and then with Monty ("Promise Me, Violet"). Once back on the bus, it is on to Tulsa, where she meets up with the Preacher, who is busy rehearsing with a full-scale gospel choir ("Raise Me Up"). He foists her off on his assistant, Virgil (Andrew Bonomolo), who insists she must come back in a couple of days for the actual "show," and leads her out of the studio. She doubles back and corners the Preacher backstage; he actually manages to convince her that he has "cured" her. Ecstatic, she returns to Fort Smith for a pre-arranged rendezvous with Monty.
This is a completely bare-bones summary; the production has a full 26 songs with numerous company numbers and some absolutely spot-on solos, especially from Seiger, who sports one magnificent set of pipes, and from Plonk and Baez.
It is somewhat surprising to learn that all of these fine young singer/dancer/actors are high school age; this production has the spit and polish of a full-scale PlayMakers production, and the control and timbre of these voices makes them sound a lot more mature than they actually are. In a musical that depends so vividly on the music, with many songs flowing one into the next, Violet is a real treat, with singing and dancing that rivals companies quite a bit further on in years. With a massive cast and some truly inspired acting from the principals, Violet is a stunner of a musical that gives a surprising cast some real stage experience. The Summer Youth Conservatory presentation of Violet is well worth your time and a résumé addition of which every one of these students can be proud.
Violet continues through Sunday, July 31. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.