Critically acclaimed — and glamorous — Broadway star Lauren Kennedy will return to her hometown next week to tackle the plain-Jane title role in Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy’s upcoming production of Violet: A New Musical, which will run Aug. 17-21 and 24-28 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC. This 1997 Off-Broadway musical features music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Brian Crawley, and a book by Crawley, based on N.C. author and writing teacher Doris Betts’ 1973 short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim.”
“My first introduction to Violet was seeing the original Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons,” recalls HSN guest director Eric Woodall. “I played The Preacher, in PlayMakers Repertory’s  production, and then directed a production at Actors Theatre in Charlotte [in 2001].”
Woodall adds, “Violet is a show that takes place in the South in the early 1960s. Doris Betts wrote a beautifully authentic, Southern short story about a girl in the mountains of North Carolina on a journey. The incredible score by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley adds a mixture of musical styles (gospel, country, folk, R&B) to elevate and expand the plot.
“I have been haunted and inspired by this motivational story and amazing music since I first saw [Violet] years ago,” confesses Woodall, a Benson, NC-born actor, director, and casting director who currently works for Tara Rubin Casting in New York City. Woodall first worked with Violet star Lauren Kennedy when they played two of the Von Trapp children in a long-ago production of The Sound of Music.
He adds, “I am thrilled to be a part of the HSN production which reunites me with N.C. native Lauren Kennedy, as well as an entire cast that is either currently living in, or originally from North Carolina. How often can something be so completely authentic? I ‘jumped’ at the opportunity to trade my New York hot summer nights for these North Carolina ones!”
Violet: A New Musical made its Off-Broadway debut, directed by Susan H. Schulman, on March 11, 1997 at Playwrights Horizons, where it closed on April 6, 1997. The show starred Lauren Ward as Violet. Violet won the 1997 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, the 1997 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, and a Special Citation for Jeanine Tesori (music) at the 1996-97 OBIE Awards.
“As the play opens,” says director Eric Woodall, “we see a flashback of the horrible chopping accident of Violet’s youth. Young Violet (Mary Mattison Vallery) is hit in the face by her father’s (Dennis Delamar) ax.”
He adds, “Set in 1964 in the Deep South, during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Violet follows the growth and enlightenment of a bitter young disfigured woman named Violet (Lauren Kennedy). In hopes that a TV evangelist (David McClutchey) can cure her, she embarks on a journey by bus from her sleepy North Carolina town to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Along the way,” Woodall says, “she meets two young soldiers; Monty (Jason Sharp) who introduces her to new ideas, and Flick (Melvin Tunstall) a young black soldier who teaches her about beauty, love, courage, and what it means to be an outsider.
“This Wizard of Oz tale follows Violet on her journey to find what she has always been looking for,” Woodall says.
Besides the actors and actresses named above, the cast for Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy’s production of Violet: A New Musical includes Heather Patterson King, Hazel Edmond, Yolanda Rabun, Jeffrey Todd Parrott, Jim Dadosky, and Nick Devito.
In addition to director Eric Woodall, the Hot Summer Nights creative team for Violet includes husband-and-wife producers Alan Campbell and Lauren Kennedy; fellow producers Adam Twiss and Hilary Russo; musical director Jay Wright; technical director and set and lighting designer Chris Bernier; costume designer Denise Schumaker; properties manager Richard Young; sound designer Eric Collins; and stage manager Christine Rapp. The production also features video projections by Will Mikes.
Director Eric Woodall claims, “The show is representational. There are very few set pieces and props which aid the audience to know where the action takes place. The audience has to use their imaginations to fill in some of the details.
“For instance, the lead character, Violet, has a terrible scar across her face. We don’t use a real scar,” Woodall reveals. “We ask the audience to imagine what it would look like.”
He adds, “Sometimes what is imagined is far greater than what we could represent. Also, a great deal of the show takes place on a bus. We ‘suggest’ the bus, and all other set pieces by using suitcases and trunks. I felt the luggage idea helped suggest the idea of travel, a journey, always searching for something better.”
Woodall says, “In addition to the suitcases and trunks that make up all of the set pieces, there will also be two telephone poles with connecting wire that drapes out over and across the audience. Again, [the telephone poles] suggest rural, roadside travel. The stage will be made up of wood planks, and the walls will suggest aged brick.”
He adds, “The lighting will help us dance between real time and flashbacks and fantasies that happen in Violet’s mind….
“We are using suggestive pieces [of costumes] to represent the 1960s period,” director Eric Woodall says. “We are incorporating lots of those wonderful blues, greens, and yellows from the early 1960s. To help the audience decipher between real time and flashbacks, the ‘memory characters’ will be dressed in darker tones: blacks, grays, dark blues.”
In addition to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (June 8-12 and 15-19), Sirius/XM’s Broadway host Seth Rudetsky’s Big Fat Broadway Show and Rudetsky’s Master Class on auditioning (both June 13th), The Marvelous Wonderettes (June 29-July 3 and July 6-10), Sharon Talbot’s original play A Field of Glory (July 20-24 and 27-31), and Violet: A New Musical (Aug. 17-21 and 24-28), Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy’s 2011 season includes the concert Oh, What a Night! (Aug. 31 and Sept. 1), which features an all-star cast singing songs from shows too big for Hot Summer Nights.
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents VIOLET: A NEW MUSICAL, starring Lauren Kennedy, at 8 p.m. Aug. 17-20, 3 p.m. Aug. 21, 8 p.m. Aug. 24-27, and 3 p.m. Aug. 28 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $22 ($18 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 866/811-4111 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/27655.
The Musical: http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000194 (Music Theatre International), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violet_(musical) (Wikipedia), and http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&title=Violet (Internet Off-Broadway Database)), and http://www.freewebs.com/violetthemusical (fan site).
Lauren Kennedy: http://www.laurenkennedy.com/ (official website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Kennedy (Wikipedia), and http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=70340 (Internet Broadway Database).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.