Temperatures in the Triangle may have cooled a tad; but the current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy production of Violet: A New Musical is hot, hot, hot. Raleigh, NC native Lauren Kennedy provides much of the sizzle in this Southern-fried 1997 Off-Broadway musical comedy, with toe-tapping tunes by Jeanine Tesori and sassy lyrics and an irreverent script by Brian Crawley, based on the 1973 short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by N.C. author and writing teacher Doris Betts.
Where else but Hot Summer Nights can Triangle theatergoers see a Broadway star strut her finest stuff with a splendid supporting cast, under the sure-handed direction of Eric Woodall, for just $22 a ticket? If the two-week run of Violet is not already sold out, it should be.
A Benson, NC-born actor and director, who is currently a casting director for Tara Rubin Casting in New York City, Woodall played the Preacher in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s terrific 1999 presentation of Violet, starring Lori Fischer in the title role of the disfigured Spruce Pine, NC girl to travels by bus to Tulsa, OK, in hopes that a faith-healing TV evangelist can heal her facial disfigurement, give her “Gene Tierney eyes,” and make her movie-star beautiful.
When a Broadway veteran and ball of fire, such as Hot Summer Nights producer Lauren Kennedy, steps onto the stage, she adds pizzazz to any presentation; but there are plenty of other reasons to see Violet, besides Kennedy’s charismatic characterization of the sneaky-smart but bluntly-plainspoken mountain girl who finds a lot of bumps in the road during her cross-country odyssey in search of a medical miracle, at the hands of an obvious charlatan.
Jason Sharp and especially Melvin Tunstall III make a delightful duo as white paratrooper Monty and black soldier Flick, who share Violet’s bumpy bus ride all the way to Fort Smith, AR. Monty is a hard-drinking good old boy only looking for a good time; but Flick is deeper and more sensitive and he knows only too well what it means to have strangers snap-judge you, because of the color of his skin or a facial scar.
Kennedy, Sharp, and Tunstall have a grand old time in story and song (“Luck of the Draw,” etc.) on their bus trip from Spruce Pine to Memphis to Fort Smith; but it is Tunstall’s heartfelt solo on “Let It Sing” that is the show-stopper. Mary Mattison Vallery and Dennis Delamar add sharply etched cameos — in flashbacks — as Young Violet and her father, David McClutchey is fantastic as a Preacher with a vast church and television empire and a troubled conscience, and Heather Patterson King is funny as a fussy Old Lady and incendiary as the Hotel Singer whose smoky rendition of “Who’ll Be the One If Not Me?” raises the room’s temperature 10 degrees.
Jeffrey Todd Parrott amuses in multiple roles as various bus drivers and the Preacher’s oily assistant Virgil, but it is Yolanda W. Rabun who steals the show with her antics in the outrageously over-the-top “Raise Me Up” gospel number. Hazel Edmond, Jim Dadosky, and Nick Devito complete the cast.
The brushed brick walls of scenic designer Chris Bernier’s set help the colors in costume designer Denise Schumaker’s mid-1960s outfits stand out; and the buoyant instrumental accompaniment of conductor Jay Wright (keyboards), music assistant Jackson Cooper (keyboards), Joan Beck (violin), Drew Lile (guitar/banjo), John Simonetti (bass), and Todd Proctor (percussion) is the wind beneath the wings of Violet’s exceptional ensemble, with vibrant vocals by Lauren Kennedy, Melvin Tunstall, and Yolanda Rabun adding oomph to a message musical that in the hands of the talented and resourceful Hot Summer Nights cast and crew becomes a veritable feast for the ear and the eye. Don’t miss it.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 19th Raleigh, NC CVNC (Classical Voice of North Carolina) review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5032; Aug. 19th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/08/19/1421721/potent-message-blends-with-great.html; Aug. 16th “The State of Things” on North Carolina Public Radio WUNC 91.5 FM interview with Eric Woodall, conducted by Frank Stasio: http://wunc.org/tsot/archive/The_Literary_Legacy_of_Doris_Betts.mp3/view; Aug. 15th Raleigh, NC News 14 Carolina interview with Lauren Kennedy, conducted by Tracey Early: http://triangle.news14.com/content/645343/in-depth–lauren-kennedy—violet-?r=9178140407; and Aug. 11th New York, NY Playbill.com preview by Andrew Gans: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/153561-Lauren-Kennedy-Will-Star-in-Hot-Summer-Nights-Violet-Complete-Cast-Announced. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 9th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/08/broadways-lauren-kennedy-will-star-in-violet-a-new-musical-at-hot-summer-nights-at-the-kennedy/.)
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents VIOLET: A NEW MUSICAL, starring Lauren Kennedy, at 8 p.m. Aug. 19 and 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://www.musicalheaven.com/Detailed/212.html (Musical Heaven), 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).
“The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts (text): http://www.courthousearts.org/docs/the_ugliest_pilgrim.doc (Court House Center for the Arts).
Melvin Tunstall III: http://facebook.com/melvintunstall3 (Facebook).
Yolanda W. Rabun: http://www.yolandarabun.com/ (official website).
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 review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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